|Saving Synagogues, Building Community|
|Written by Elizabeth Eilender and Theta Pavis|
For a complete download of the article along with the pictures that accompany it please click here:
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
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
“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 synagogue—and a sense of community—when 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.
“It’s not about the ‘synagogue,’ it’s about the community,” says Shammai Engelmayer, Rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center in
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 residents—regardless of denomination—to 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.”
“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
Congregation Mount Sinai, for example, is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in
The oldest Jewish Congregation in
|< Prev||Next >|