Hudson Jewish Community Forum

Wave of New Residents Gives Hope Print E-mail
Written by Ron Kaplan, NJJN Staff Writer   

New Jersey Jewish News -  May 3, 2007, pp 10-11. 

Rabbi Marks toasts Le Chaim
Rabbi Shlomo Marks of Congregation Mount Sinai of Jersey City Heights
called the Jewish community of Hudson County "Orphan Annies."
Photo courtesy Congregation Mount Sinai of Jersey City Heights

After years of declining numbers, Hudson County's Jewish community is making a comeback, according to a "revival meeting" of rabbis and community leaders from the area.

More than 30 participants representing the spectrum of Jewish life in the "Gold Coast" which includes Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, North Bergen, and Union City met at the Jewish Community Center in Bayonne on April 17 to exchange information on their religious, social, and educational activities.

Serving an area that went into decline with the growth of the suburbs in the 1960s and '70s, the institutions hope to capitalize on a wave of new, younger residents who appreciate the proximity to Manhattan and housing that, relative to New York rents, is cheaper.

The gathering was the brainchild of Adam Weiss, 41, an attorney and resident of Jersey City, who organized the meeting after Congregation Agudath Sholom in Jersey City closed in March.

In a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News, he recalled another shul that shut its doors six years ago.

"Consider what happened to the Grove Street Synagogue, right next to City Hall in Jersey City," said Weiss, a member of Congregation Mount Sinai in Jersey City Heights and the United Synagogue of Hoboken. (He describes himself as "just a lay person concerned about the Jewish community.")

The Grove Street Synagogue, known formally as Congregation Sons of Israel, closed in 2001.

Now, however, more than 10,000 housing units are under construction in that neighborhood, he said, and "downtown Jersey City is chock full of Israelis."

If only 5 to 6 percent of the housing units were occupied by Jewish residents, Weiss estimates, the decision to close the synagogue will have proven short-sighted.

"Holding on to Grove Street Synagogue even if it had been mothballed and boarded up would have cost maybe $20,000-$40,000 per year" for minimal maintenance, Weiss said. "To get it back now, or to organize a congregation and construct a new one, is easily $5-$8 million."

The April 17 meeting identified key problems facing local Jewish institutions, among them that many Jews settling in Hudson County are unaware that there are local synagogues and Jewish organizations.

One of the goals of the Hudson County Jewish Forum the informal name Weiss has temporarily dubbed the group is "to raise our profile on a regional and national level as a place for people to consider moving to. The Upper West Side and Bergen County are out of reach of many young Jews," he said. "We have wonderful assets already."

Synagogue leaders have been heartened by the influx of new Jewish blood to the "Gold Coast" area.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, who has served at United Synagogue of Hoboken since 1998, said that city is no longer considered merely a transitory step for families before they move to more upscale bedroom communities.

"People are still doing that, but we try to get them involved in synagogue life even if they're just here short-term," he said.

However, instead of leaving the area when they marry or begin to have children, "now some are staying until the kids are ready for kindergarten. They like the urban environment and tight-knit community and proximity to the city."

Last Yom Kippur there were about 70 baby strollers outside his Conservative Hoboken synagogue, said Scheinberg, who has seen membership grow "significantly" over the last decade. There are currently 240 household memberships, with a total of 800-900 participating in synagogue programs throughout the year, which he sees as a promising sign.

Federation 'orphans'

Adam Weiss, Jersey City resident and organizer Hudson Jewish Community Forum

The Hudson County institutions are struggling to attract wider Jewish organizational support. One hurdle is the lack of an umbrella Jewish philanthropy covering the region or a federation to help marshal community resources. None of the 12 Jewish federations in the state lays claims to Hudson County.

"When the federation system was divided up into different regions, the size of the community was so negligible that it really wasn't noticed, so it wasn't allocated to anyone," said Scheinberg.

Hudson Jewish leaders have made overtures to the Jewish federation in Bergen County and to United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, which includes neighboring Essex County.

"MetroWest did a demographic study and concluded very unfortunately – that we wouldn't donate enough to make it worthwhile to be incorporated," said Scheinberg.

UJC MetroWest says it wasn't a question of money. Rather, the two communities are not contiguous, and it could not properly serve Hudson and do justice to its current service area.

Arthur Sandman, UJC MetroWest associate executive vice president, said that the federation conducted a discussion based on the study in 2003, to determine if "we could serve this community and it could serve us as well. The conclusion was that we could not make it work, and we did not proceed."

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which includes Bergen County, also declined to include the area in its jurisdiction.

The result, said participants at the Bayonne JCC meeting, is that the Hudson Jewish community feels "orphaned."

Rabbi Shlomo Marks of Congregation Mount Sinai of Jersey City Heights, an Orthodox shul and the oldest continually operating synagogue in Jersey City, said, "We're kind of Orphan Annies; we're not part of any federation."

Jack Ryger, northeast regional director of United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella of North American federations, remains optimistic. Hudson County is "an orphan that's gone through a growth spurt and is starting to get some attention now that we're a bit larger."

"It's not an issue of incorporation," he said. "These are independent communities who want to charter their own future. They want to decide what they want to do, rather than have someone come in and decide to take them over."

On the other hand, Weiss said, "Any services that the federations would like to extend, [the community] would be delighted to have."

Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, a beneficiary agency of UJC MetroWest, maintains an office in Jersey City.

Ryger was surprised by the diversity at the meeting, both in terms of denominational and age representation: "I don't think they even realized before that there are so many in their 30s who are there to stay."

Marks, born in London, said he was "really excited by the meeting, considering how 'excited' is so much overused in the American language. It demonstrates there's still Jewish life in Hudson County. The lament 'Oy, we're dying!' is not true.

"One of the biggest problems in American society is that we're all in competition. Here we're absolutely not in competition; we can all help each other grow." The general sentiment, he said, was, "I don't care with whom you affiliate, just affiliate."

According to Congregation Sinai's Web site, the synagogue flourished in the middle years of the 20th century, when the Hudson County region was home to almost 29,000 Jews before the wave of first- and second-generation Americans moved out to the suburbs. The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey the latest official study available shows that there are 12,500 Jews in Hudson County.

"We're not as vibrant as in the 1950s, [but] there's some fairly serious signs that we're actually growing, that we're on the edge of something big," said Marks.

The Hudson County Jewish Forum will reconvene on June 14 to discuss how to attract unaffiliated Jews to the county's synagogues and Jewish organizations and how to promote Hudson County as an inviting place for Jews to settle within the New York metropolitan area.

"The fact that we got all those people in the same room together is an important first step," said Scheinberg. "Only good things can come from this."

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