Hudson Jewish Community Forum

Saving Synagogues, Building Community Print E-mail
Written by Elizabeth Eilender and Theta Pavis   

For a complete download of the article along with the pictures that accompany it please click here:

Saving Synagogues, Building Communities. 

First Published in Palisade Magaine, March/April 2008, pp. 41-46. 

Little Nicole was mesmerized. In front of her, a burly rabbi clad in a bright purple hat was using finger puppets to tell an ancient biblical story. Dressed in costume for the Jewish Festival of Purim, Nicole, 2-and-a-half, sat in a circle with six other intently listening children.

The story of Purim is a tale told every spring, and celebrated with costumes, music, food and revelry. What made this celebration different was that it was held inside Congregation Mount Sinai, (www.mtsinai.net) a 100-year-old synagogue in the Jersey City Heights where children hadn’t been present for years.

 

After decades of decline, some North Jersey congregations like Mt. Sinai are experiencing a mini-revival. In late 2006, scores of synagogue presidents, rabbis, community leaders and residents came together to form the Hudson Jewish Community Forum (www.hudsonjewish.org). This new grassroots organization aims to raise awareness of Jewish life in New Jersey’s revitalized urban areas and stabilize the remaining historic synagogues. One thing they have on their side is new development along the “Gold Coast,” which is drawing Jewish families to the area. The Hudson Jewish Community Forum wants to connect with these newcomers and let them know the area has both a remarkable history and hopefully, a vibrant future.

 

If the group is successful it may accomplish more than just strengthening the Jewish community. Besides saving historic buildings, Forum members are working to start a new Jewish day school—a big issue in a region where private schools often have long waiting lists. Adam Weiss, 41, an executive recruiter and one of the Forum’s founders, says a stronger Jewish community, like any healthy ethnic community, makes for a better overall neighborhood.

 

“The Jewish people who are moving to this area tend to be young, professional and very community involved,” says Weiss, pointing to the examples of Dawn Zimmer and Steven Fulop. Both are young and Jewish; Zimmer, 39, was recently elected to the Hoboken City Council and Fulop, 30, has served for two years on the Jersey City Council. Rabbi Shlomo Marks of Congregation Mount Sinai—the rabbi who told the Purim story to the children—has, among other things, been involved in the preservation of a historic reservoir in the Heights. And the president of Temple Beth-El, Joshua Parkhurst, is also the president of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy.

 

Weiss says the Jewish population in this area “has probably doubled in the last five years, and it will probably double again in the next five. As a consequence, all of the moribund synagogues have a reason to hold on for the future.”

 

Rabbi Marks, who moved to Jersey City from Israel less than two years ago, agrees. “I am getting phone calls regularly from people who are thinking about [moving to] the area,” he says. “We’re getting doctors, lawyers, and finance people moving in.”

They’re people like Jessica Lemmon, 28. When Lemmon moved to Society Hill in Jersey City with her husband Alan in 2005, they knew few people here and weren’t sure how to connect with a Jewish congregation. They often drove all the way to her parent’s house in Matawan for Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners. “We were driving down West Side Avenue one day and saw Synagogue B’nai Jacob. We figured we might as well check it out, it being right around the corner from us!” Today, Lemmon is a member of B’nai Jacob and of the Forum, which is working to make it easier for people like her to find a synagogueand a sense of communitywhen they move here.

 

A New Generation 

Currently, there are about a dozen and a half active synagogues that represent the Gold Coast’s cultural past. However, the continued existence of these buildings remains precarious. Last spring, Agudath Sholom, founded in 1895 and located on Kennedy Boulevard, closed.

 

The situation worries Weiss and others. “Somebody has got to do something now,” says Weiss. “At least half of the synagogues in the region are in serious jeopardy, because most of the existing members are in their 70s and 80s. They are sitting in historic buildings in Jersey City, Bayonne, North Bergen, and Newark, which are the patrimony of 120 years of Jewish life in the area.”

 

Forum members are optimistic however that they can turn things around. They point to positive signs, such as the recent arrival of young new rabbi, Menachem Schtroks, at Congregation Ohav Zedek, an Orthodox synagogue in Bayonne. As an active member of Ohav Zedek and the Jewish Community Center of Bayonne, Michelle Levine, 40, happily joined the Forum. She says she’s heartened that five new Jewish families (three of them Israeli), recently moved to Bayonne, while another family opened an Israeli kosher market called Kineret, on Newark Avenue in Jersey City. Levine, who is married and has two sons, moved to Bayonne three years ago after her sister’s family had been living there for a few years.

 

“The problem is a lack of awareness of what synagogues are in town and what would be a good fit for them [new residents],” says Levine. “HudsonJewish is doing an enormous job in addressing that issue with advertising plans, a website, and contact information.”

 

Meanwhile, a few miles north at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, membership has grown steadily over the past few years with 240 households signed up, double the number from 10 years ago. At the same time, attendance at the synagogue’s pre-school has jumped from 12 children six years ago to 100 today. Rabbi Robert Scheinberg attributes this trend to more people wanting to remain in the area longer to enjoy the urban lifestyle.

 

Hoboken is also home to the only center for Chabada branch of Hasidismin Hudson County. There is no membership fee to be involved in their programs and the organization’s doors are open to everyone. “Our growth comes from more people becoming aware that there is a Chabad here, and that we welcome them in a non-judgmental way,” says Moshe Schapiro, the center’s Rabbi. During Chabad’s first year in Hoboken in 2001, fewer than 100 people attended their Purim celebration; last year more than 185 adults and children showed up, Schapiro adds.

 

“It’s not about the ‘synagogue,’ it’s about the community,” says Shammai Engelmayer, Rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park. “The synagogues are on the front line, but if you don’t find ways to make people feel welcome, we are going to lose the battle to save the Jewish future here.”

 

Last fall, about 30 people gathered at the United Synagogue of Hoboken to discuss creating a new Jewish day school. A 15-person working group is now tackling the project.

 

With that in mind, Forum members are preoccupied with coming up with even more ways to encourage residentsregardless of denominationto stay and put down roots here, much like their ancestors did a century ago. In December a countywide event for Hanukkah was held in Bayonne, attracting close to 400 people. While such an event would be “standard” in any other Jewish community, Weiss says it’s the first time since 1929 that an event like this happened in Hudson County.

“We have an opportunity to make an impact on the next generation of Jewish residents by alerting them to the existence of the Jewish community here,” says Weiss, “and also by preserving the valuable synagogues within community hands.”

           

 

POP-OUTS:

 

“It’s not about the synagogue, it’s about the community.” – Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer

 

Attendance at the synagogue’s pre-school has jumped from 12 children six years ago to 100 today.

 

  SIDEBARComing to America 

During the first half of the 20th Century, tens of thousands of Jewish families lived and prospered in Hudson County and the surrounding region. However, starting in the 1960’s, suburban flight and urban decay depleted most of these communities of their young members, leaving only much older folks to attend the few synagogues left.

 

That infrastructure had begun to take shape in the 1840’s with a wave of German Jewish immigration into the United States. A second, larger wave occurred in the 1880’s when the government of New Jersey enacted laws that promoted greater religious tolerance. As a result, many Jewish immigrants who wanted to escape oppression from countries such as Poland, Russia, Romania, and Hungary, came to New Jersey. By the turn of the century, dozens of religious congregations formed and synagogues were built to meet the needs of the growing community.

 

Congregation Mount Sinai, for example, is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Jersey City. It was founded in 1906 by Jewish merchants who were then the mainstays of the nearby Central Avenue retail district. The congregation flourished in the middle years of the 20th century, when the Heights neighborhood was home to a large community of first- and second-generation Americans. The temple—which will soon celebrate its centennial—occupies a landmark building on Sherman Avenue that features a distinctive copper cupola. It’s been recognized as a historic site by the city and is on the verge of being recognized by the state.

 

The oldest Jewish Congregation in Jersey City is Temple Beth-El, founded in 1864. The first Orthodox synagogue in Jersey City, and in fact, all of Hudson County, was Congregation Sons of Israel, founded in 1882. It changed addresses several times (at one point it operated in a room above a saloon on the corner of Monmouth and Erie streets), until in 1920 it reached its permanent home in a former church at 294 Grove Street where it was often referred to as the “Grove Street Shul.” The enormous building was closed in 1994 and converted into a mosque in 2001.

 
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