Religion and the city

JC temple prepares to install its first female rabbi

Want to read the Talmud on your iPhone or stream music from Jewish Rock Radio? Well, naturally, in 2011 there are apps for that.
But Debra Hachen, the recently-named head rabbi at Jersey City’s Temple Beth-El, reminds that religious congregations are meant to foster a community that furthers spiritual growth.
Next weekend – in events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – Rabbi Hachen will be officially installed at Temple Beth-El. Events include a special Shabbat service Friday night, a keynote speaker, special guests, and a Mitzvah Day – a day of giving back – to conclude the weekend.
Hachen officially started her assignment July 1.

She is the temple’s first female rabbi.
As the leader of a Reform Jewish synagogue in the heart of a diverse city in a dynamic county, Hachen will be charged with tending to the unmet spiritual needs of Hudson County Jews, many of whom may be relative newcomers to Jersey City. This population, she noted, includes everyone from recent “empty nesters” to couples with young children and interfaith families.
“I look out at the community beyond the walls of the synagogue and I say, ‘There are all these young people and newcomers to the community who don’t have a place to call their Jewish home. We should be serving them. What can we be doing to help them with their spiritual life?’ ”
Some Jewish residents in Hudson County, Hachen said, may have spiritual and community needs but haven’t found a place to meet those needs. And they may not have thought to meet them at a synagogue.
“Many unaffiliated Jews don’t define themselves as religious,” said Hachen. “The religious, cultural, ethnic, social pieces of their Jewish identity are all mixed together.”
There are approximately 120 Hudson County households who are members of Temple Beth-El, with another 100 households that participated in the High Holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah last month. While many of these families, Hachen said, have deep roots in the area “going back several generations, there is also a very large group that has no roots in Jersey City, Hoboken, or Hudson County. So, for them the congregation serves as an extended Jewish family.”

Bridging the gap

Hachen said many Hudson County Jews don’t know about Temple Beth-El – one of only two Reform synagogues in Hudson County. And, she added, “Bridging the downtown Jersey City-to-Kennedy Boulevard gap is a challenge. People who live downtown often have never been up to Journal Square or the Heights or Communipaw Avenue.”
Temple Beth-El is located at 2419 Kennedy Blvd.
The synagogue has stepped up its publicity, and is asking congregants to talk up the temple with friends and neighbors.
According to one congregant, Hachen’s engaging, dynamic preaching style has caught the attention of many.
“She really engages the congregation, engages them in dialogue during the sermon by asking questions and inviting feedback and response,” said Paul Cohen.
Touched by the compliment, Hachen said, “We are trying to make our Friday night Sabbath services very exciting, innovative, and different by having discussions, spiritual movement, or Bibliodrama – things that will be interesting for first-time visitors when they come, something memorable and that will help them quickly feel connected to Jewish texts and Jewish beliefs.”
The synagogue will also be expanding its programs for children and families with children by offering such events as pajama hidalas and cot Shabbats – both sleepovers for kids. For the adults, Beth-El plans to host or facilitate some events downtown so that congregants can socialize outside of the temple.

Guided connections

Raised in Connecticut and Ohio, Hachen moved to New Jersey after her husband took a job in Manhattan. Previously, she served a synagogue in Westboro, Mass., for 24 years. She was then a rabbi at a synagogue in Bergen County before coming to Beth-El.
She was ordained in 1980 at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
Hachen is the first female head rabbi at the temple. The Jewish religion has only been ordaining female rabbis since the 1930s, and some of the more orthodox members of the religion do not approve of the change. But it’s more common among Reform Jews.
“The challenge for a new rabbi in an historic congregation where some people have been members for decades is to do two things at the same time,” she said. “One is to thicken the relationships among people who are already members. The second part is to get to know the new people who come in the door and find out what they’re looking for and help guide them into a connection with the people who are already there.”
For more information about Temple Beth-El or Rabbi Hachen’s upcoming installation, call the synagogue at (201) 333-4229 or visit
E-mail E. Assata Wright at

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group