It was 1991 and an outlying Jersey community was just beginning to gel. Rabbi Mendy and Malkie Herson moved into a condo and opened up their home for Friday-night Sabbath dinners, children-friendly study sessions and a smattering of adult education classes. Soon, they were hosting prayer services in their Basking Ridge basement.

Marsha Nagelberg and her husband, Dr. Harvey Gerhard, remember the earliest meetings, the Hersons’ condominium and the big room downstairs, where the kitchen table doubled as the dining room table and the room also encompassed the preschool their children were among the first to attend.

Flash forward to 2004, and the Chabad Jewish Center founded a Jewish day school on property it owned and hired a staff to help with programming. It’s a trajectory of growth that led community members from throughout the area to celebrate this year by toasting the Hersons’ 20 years in this section of the Garden State. But their rabbi is already looking forward, declaring that he’s “excited for the third decade.”

In many ways, the Chabad center’s growth has mirrored that of Chabad-Lubavitch activities throughout the state. Back in 1991, there were six families of emissaries, whereas today, there are 48. In each case, says Herson, it’s a matter of “meeting one Jew at a time and slowly building a community.”

Roberta Schorr has been involved with the Chabad Jewish Center for more than a decade. What started out as a tentative trip to the center’s strip-mall storefront to attend a class has led to a powerful experience and lifestyle impact that she carries with her until today.

“I had heard about [Rabbi Herson] and a friend of mine said to me that there was this Chasidic rabbi who gave really good lectures and I said, ‘I’m not going to these lectures. I’m not doing that,’ ” recalls Schorr. “Long story short, I went and he was really great.”

Over time she brought her husband Neil to classes with her and then began attending the services in Basking Ridge. She soon became a regular, a fact she attributes to an experience totally different than at any synagogue she’d ever been to.

“The message was so different, the context was so different, and the entirety of the experience was different,” she explains. “There was a sense of meaning and purpose.”

Rabbi Mendy Herson addresses an annual dinner.
Rabbi Mendy Herson addresses an annual dinner.

Schorr, who today attends various programs, including a women’s group on Tuesday mornings, is thrilled to have watched the center expand to a standalone building with a warm and vibrant community, a place where young children come through the doors to preschool.

“My grandchildren go here,” she says, adding that the institution focuses on what she calls the “whole child.”

“Those words are very commonplace, but when you walk in you can see it, you can feel it, you can taste it,” she continues. “It’s there and it’s real, and for me that’s one part of what’s wonderful.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, who came to the Chabad Jewish Center eight years ago and serves as its youth director, says one of the aspects he values most is the relationships the center has built. It’s created a space everyone can access, he explains, noting that second and third generations are growing up in the community.

“It’s everybody at his own pace,” says Moully. “It’s slow and steady; that’s the key. It’s not about changing people’s lives instantly or over short periods of time. We keep showing people that Judaism can be relevant and relatable.”

Nagelberg, who has watched founding members pass away and youngsters grow up, is glad for the chance to see others add their own families to the mix. There are teen programs and women’s Torah groups and Sunday morning adult education programs, she points out, all a testament to the center’s open and inviting space for Jews of all backgrounds.

“We’ve been really successful generation to generation,” says Nagelberg, signaling her hope “that we all continue in the same direction of personal refinement, of making a meaningful life for ourselves and the community.”