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Rutherford Rabbi Grows Congregation In Firebombed House

Rutherford's Bina and Yitzchok Lerman outside of their Montross Avenue home.
Rutherford's Bina and Yitzchok Lerman outside of their Montross Avenue home. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
The window with the air conditioner is the one that a Lodi man threw a firebomb through in 2012. Anthony Graziano was convicted of terrorism this summer. Lerman attended the hearing.
The window with the air conditioner is the one that a Lodi man threw a firebomb through in 2012. Anthony Graziano was convicted of terrorism this summer. Lerman attended the hearing. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
Pieces of lettering on the side of Lerman's synagogue are missing. The wood needs sanding.
Pieces of lettering on the side of Lerman's synagogue are missing. The wood needs sanding. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
Lerman identifies the termite problem on the wood outside of his synagogue's gymnasium.
Lerman identifies the termite problem on the wood outside of his synagogue's gymnasium. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
The windows in Lerman's gymnasium haven't been updated in more than a century, the rabbi said.
The windows in Lerman's gymnasium haven't been updated in more than a century, the rabbi said. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
The Lermans were honored by President Barack Obama for their service to the community.
The Lermans were honored by President Barack Obama for their service to the community. Photo Credit: Bina Lerman
And strike a pose, while you're at it.
And strike a pose, while you're at it. Photo Credit: Bina Lerman
Rabbi Yitzchok Lerman with his wife, Bina, and three children; Devorah Leah, Tsivya and Aharon.
Rabbi Yitzchok Lerman with his wife, Bina, and three children; Devorah Leah, Tsivya and Aharon. Photo Credit: Cecilia Levine
Rabbi Lerman delivers cases of water to the Rutherford Police Department.
Rabbi Lerman delivers cases of water to the Rutherford Police Department. Photo Credit: Facebook
Municipal officials and members of law enforcement help Lerman light the menorah on Hannukah.
Municipal officials and members of law enforcement help Lerman light the menorah on Hannukah. Photo Credit: Facebook
Bina Lerman leads a challah-baking class in her Rutherford synagogue.
Bina Lerman leads a challah-baking class in her Rutherford synagogue. Photo Credit: Facebook

RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There's a yellow sign with a smiley face hanging in the window of Rutherford Rabbi Yitzchok Lerman's mansion-turned-synagogue.

"Smile, you're on camera!"

Look up and to the left and you'll see it.

The sign doesn't defeat the purpose of the precautionary security camera, installed after a Lodi man later convicted of terrorism firebombed the house in 2012, the Congregation Beth-El rabbi says.

Besides, it's not acts of violence that has Lerman worried these days: It's the house.

"If we don't fix it, we're going to lose this place," said Lerman, who lives in the upstairs level of the 1821 Queen Anne Mansion with his wife, Bina, and three children.

The rabbi, a teacher at a yeshiva in Queens, is proud to call Rutherford home to South Bergen's Jewish community.

Since moving from Brooklyn, the rabbi and his family have grown Beth-El's congregation by the hundreds, and launched an already-thriving Hebrew school last year.

But as his community expands, Lerman's facility crumbles.

"We moved into a house that hadn't been taken care of for at least 20 years," Lerman said standing in the gym attached to the facility that he rents out to a local baseball program.

"There's a lot of deferred maintenance."

He turns around surveying the room and considers where to begin.

"The windows are 125 years old," Lerman said. "There is literally water settling on the roof over our bedrooms. We just called in a roofer who told us we needed a carpenter because the wood had rotted away."

They've also developed a termite problem in parts of the house. The wooden lettering that reads "Beth El" on the side of the house is chipping. Parts of the letters are missing and the wood itself begs to be sanded and repainted.

The synagogue has received mostly negative publicity, but the Lermans are determined to change that.

Last month, they were honored by U.S. President Barack Obama for the synagogue's 95 years of service in the community.

This past Hannukah, the couple invited police officers from surrounding municipalities to come and light a candle on its menorah.

The rabbi delivered water bottles to Rutherford Police Chief John Russo during a recent heat wave and is on great terms with Mayor Joseph DeSalvo, who lives down the block.

Lerman plans on keeping the positive momentum going.

"Goodness will always overcome evil," Lerman said. "People should know that we are here for them."

EMAIL RABBI LERMAN TO DONATE OR GET INVOLVED.

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