By Susan Lesh
I’ve recently been thinking about the importance of having a home. My dad and brother just lived through Hurricane Irma; there was a definite chance that their mobile home would not make it through. Luckily, they lost only a drain pipe; unfortunately, the home next to them lost a roof. They waited out the storm in a shelter, a neighboring town’s high school gym, developing a new sense of community with many unfamiliar people. They were safe, relatively comfortable, and well looked after (although my dad says he ate enough “Cinna-Mini’s” to last a lifetime), but they wanted to go home.
Our Society building is our home. We are not homeless. There is a measure of comfort and security I have when entering our building. It was not always so. I spoke with Joe about the beginnings of our building. In the 1950s, New Jersey saw an influx of New York City people wanting to live in the suburbs. Some were members of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. They had children; they wanted a Sunday School closer to where they lived. So, the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County was founded in 1953, without a permanent home.
At first, no permanent home
They met in Hackensack; that first meeting was at the Hackensack Middle School. They met in Fair Lawn, and in a rented room above a firehouse in Teaneck. In 1956-1957, when Howard Radest was leader, we acquired our present meetinghouse, although it didn’t look the same as it does now. A reform congregation, the current Temple Emeth on Windsor Road, was selling it. The original entrance to the building was through the current playground, where there were two glass doors. The kitchen was eight feet into the main room, making the room long and narrow. The leader’s office was on the first floor, near where the current men’s room is located; the stairs went over that office. In 1979, the decision was made to enlarge the building, primarily to increase the size of the main meeting room. Under the direction of then-president Ted Patsuris, the east side of the building was pushed out eight feet, allowing the leader’s office to go up to the second floor, the kitchen to be moved into the playground, the bathrooms to be made accessible for all, and ultimately to enlarge the main meeting space. Throughout these times, members ran capital campaigns to raise funds; Steve Gopoian ran two successful campaigns, raising $35,000 and $15,000, and in 2011, a taskforce committee raised $50,000. When Ron Schwartz was president, he was able to have members be the mortgage holders, so payments could be made to members and not a bank.
But if you own a house, you know that you cannot rest on your laurels. Something is always breaking, something always needs attention. There are long lists of devoted members who contribute to the upkeep of our building. Prior Board of Trustees minutes show that the Building Committee generally has a couple of pages of “to-dos,” and many references to the “ongoing water problems.” Our building is on the downhill slant, so some previous water problems were from that direction. They are fixed, but there are decades-long water problems in our basement.
Many hard workers, past and present
Our Building Committee chairs, Bruno Danese, Bill Wilkinson, Ted Greenblatt, Perry Stein, Bob Gordon and now Jim Norman, to name a few, may feel like Sisyphus, trying to keep our building standing. The outside grounds continue to attempt to return to chaos, but with the efforts of Azar Gordon and Ed Lipiner, plantings surround our building with loveliness. The upkeep of the inside of our home is also a relentless task, and Alice Wilkinson, Beth Greenblatt and Azar Gordon, to name some, work or worked to style and maintain it. We are lucky to have talented artists among our members, and their artwork graces our walls. Our beautiful piano was a bequest of member Ruth Haynes.
We are so lucky to have our home. From it we can work together to change the world. Programs like B-Ray and Amnesty International were housed here. At one point, a local ACLU staff person, a NOW office, and a food co-op distribution point were in the building. Our home was, and continues to be, a rallying place for peace proliferation, especially the anti-nuclear and anti-war protests. We are a place for doing good. And our devoted efforts to have our home remain standing to do that good are indeed worth the effort.
Susan Lesh is president of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County