Published in the 75th Anniversary edition of the Jewish Standard, Feb 1, 2008.
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Hudson County, Past and Present
To thousands of Jewish Baby Boomers whose roots are in Hudson County and are now scattered far and wide, it may come as a surprise that the urban region they left in the 1960s and ‘70s is experiencing a Jewish revival. Although the kosher butchers and bakers are long gone from Jersey City’s Greenville and Heights neighborhoods, the Talmud Torahs of Bayonne, Union City and Jersey City closed years ago, and the vast majority of the post-war generation left for the suburbs upon reaching adulthood, Hudson County Jewish life persists in a dozen synagogues – which a new generation of Jewish “immigrants” is already discovering.
Hudson County – primarily, the peninsula between the Hackensack and Hudson Rivers – is widely considered New Jersey’s own “flyover country” by suburban commuters who barrel (or, depending on the time of day, inch), across the viaducts that feed the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. At one time though, the vibrant Jewish communities that flourished in North Bergen, Hoboken, Bayonne, and other Hudson County communities were home to perhaps 30,000 Jews – a thriving Jewish microcosm where “The Jersey City Jewish Standard”, as it was then known, was published before relocating to Bergen County. Unofficial estimates place the current Jewish population of Hudson County in the 6,000-10,000 range, a number which may be rising quickly as gentrification ripples out from Hoboken to Jersey City and surrounding towns.
Hoboken and its neighbors once even had their own Chief Rabbi, the illustrious Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935), who migrated from his native Palestine in 1904 to serve the Hoboken-area Jewish community. Like the Hudson County towns in which he worked, Rabbi Hirschensohn’s own works are also being discovered by scholars and lay people fascinated by a rabbi who was decades ahead of his time – he was among the earliest modern rabbis to promote the secular use of the revived Hebrew language, and wrote about the relationship between Jewish law and democracy in his best-known work, Malki BaKodesh.
Speaking of politics, Hudson County’s Jews have never been far removed from contemporary political currents. From an article in the June 13, 1938 edition of Time Magazine: The Jersey City Jewish Community Center recently ousted from its building a Jewish congregation headed by an anti-Hague [Mayor Frank “Boss” Hague] rabbi, Benjamin Plotkin. Some local Jews called him a Communist.” (Rabbi Plotkin went on to serve many years at Temple Emanu-El in Bayonne and Congregation Emanu-El in Jersey City. Like many of opponents of Boss Hague, it is widely understood that Rabbi Plotkin was not, in fact, a communist).
Jews have also held political office in the county: as a Jersey City Councilman in the early 1970’s Morris Pesin (1911-1992), styled himself the city’s “watchdog” and mounted a dog house on top of his car. Pesin is still widely remembered as the “father” of Liberty State Park. His brother Meyer (1901-1988), was also active in local politics and Jewish affairs, and edited The Jewish Standard. Today, the next wave of Jewish residents is also making its mark in local politics: Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop is the son of Israeli immigrants, a Citigroup banker, and decorated Marine Corps veteran – and he’s still just 30 years old.
Although Hudson County’s Jewish community is smaller today than at its heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s, it remains quite diverse, with two Reform, four Conservative, and a half-dozen mainstream Orthodox congregations, several Orthodox yeshivot, and a small community of Klausenburg Chassidim centered in Union City. (The town’s two most widely-spoken languages may well be Spanish and Yiddish). Fom North Bergen to Bayonne, the Hudson County Jewish community’s challenge remains the same: incorporating the influx of newcomers, whether they be young professionals who work in Manhattan or “empty nesters” who seek convenient living in an urban setting. To address this challenge, Hudson County synagogues have begun cooperating as never before.
Since early 2007, members of a dozen local synagogues have collaborated on a project known as the Hudson Jewish Community Forum, a bi-monthly meeting where Jews from across the religious and social spectrum discuss common issues and concerns. The group’s first initiative was to establish a website to aggregates information on everything Jewish in the area. Another project was the first-ever community-wide High Holidays ad campaign, which put the group’s distinctive logo in PATH trains, Light Rail carriages, newspapers, and local TV in time for Rosh HaShana. (The logo substitutes the Hebrew letter “shin” for the three initial W’s in the group’s Internet domain name, “www.HudsonJewish.org”).
Jewish newcomers to Hudson County aren’t necessary being drawn to the region by its Jewish history or resources, but they’re often glad to find them at every corner. If you have recollections, photos, memorabilia, or other thoughts or items of interest related to Jewish life in Hudson County, visit the HudsonJewish.org website or email the community at: