On the Jersey Waterfront, Jews Return, But Jewish Community Still Struggles

At a Crossroads: Younger Jews are once again moving into Jersey City N.J., but older synagogues, such as Temple Beth-El (above), have had mixed success at luring them into communal life.
At a Crossroads: Younger Jews are once again moving into Jersey City N.J., but older synagogues, such as Temple Beth-El (above), have had mixed success at luring them into communal life.

By Anthony Weiss

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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Aside from a few buckets to catch water where the roof leaks, Congregation B’nai Jacob in Jersey City, N.J., looks much as it did 40 years ago, when 900 people would show up for High Holy Day services and the Hebrew school was packed with 175 students. But the Hebrew school has been closed for years, and the Conservative synagogue’s aging membership, though still devoted, has dwindled to about 90 families, most of them elderly.

“We need new people,” said Jane Canter, one of the synagogue’s founders 50 years ago and currently its co-president. “Our plans right now are probably for at least 10 years in the future, and as we go along we’ll just keep hoping that we’ll be able to continue.”

Remain in Light: Co-president Jane Canter and a small cadre of members still sustain Jersey City’s Congregation B’nai Jacob.
Remain in Light: Co-president Jane Canter and a small cadre of members still sustain Jersey City’s Congregation B’nai Jacob.

Just a few miles to the north, the United Synagogue of Hoboken, once nearly abandoned, is thriving. A new three-story building that went up in 2000 to house classrooms and offices is now so full that some of the Hebrew school classes have to meet in trailers. Membership stands at 280 families.

“Our building was probably built for about 200 households, and we now are bursting at the seams,” said the Conservative congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg.

New Jersey’s Hudson County, right across the river from Manhattan, was once home to thriving Jewish communities in waterfront cities such as Hoboken, Jersey City and nearby Bayonne. But, as in so many old urban centers, these cities’ Jewish communities slowly disappeared as members moved away or died.

Now, however, gentrification along the Hudson River waterfront and in some downtown districts has breathed new life into these cities. And among the legions of young professionals and empty-nesters who are embracing the charms of urban living are large numbers of Jews.

But, as Hudson County is discovering, an influx of Jews does not necessarily translate into a renewal of Jewish community.

In Hudson County, as in other reviving urban areas across the country, the ultimate impact of gentrification on existing Jewish communities remains unclear: Will the newcomers put down roots and affiliate with existing Jewish institutions? Or will these cities simply serve as temporary dormitories that transient young urbanites pass through on their way to someplace else?

Those were the kinds of questions on Adam Weiss’s mind two years ago when he organized a meeting at the Bayonne Jewish Community Center with every rabbi and board member of a local synagogue or Jewish organization that he could muster, 35 attendees in total. Weiss called the meeting because, as far as he could tell, nobody seemed to see the big picture of what was happening in Hudson County — the younger Jews moving into town didn’t seem to know that the established synagogues existed, and the old institutions didn’t seem to realize that young Jews were moving into town. And despite the fact that Hudson County is surrounded by some of the wealthiest and most well-organized Jewish communities in the country, there was no federation or other organizing body for Jewish life.

“Hudson County is the hole in the bagel,” Weiss, a 43-year-old executive recruiter, said.

What emerged from that April 2007 meeting was a plan to try to help local Jews and institutions reconnect. Weiss and his fellow volunteers formed the Hudson Jewish Community Forum and, with $30,000 raised from the community, went to work. They put together an advertising campaign in advance of the High Holy Days, buying ads on public transit and sticking postcards behind bottles of Manischewitz in the grocery store. They built a Web site that became a centralized bulletin board for Jewish life in Hudson County, including a directory of local synagogues and Jewish organizations, a calendar of Jewish events and a monthly newsletter with updates on the local community. More recently, they convinced a central New Jersey newspaper, The Jewish State, to create a monthly supplement on Jewish life in Hudson County.

Hudson Jewish also sponsors an annual event called Hanukkah on the Hudson, which, in each of the past two years, has brought more than 250 Jews of all ages together.

Weiss had originally hoped that Hudson Jewish would connect the newcomers with the old synagogues. But despite the organization’s many successes, the older Jewish community and the younger Jewish newcomers have remained largely separate, and many synagogues, such as Congregation B’nai Jacob, have either continued to decline or have seen only a small up-tick in younger members. At others, such as Jersey City’s Temple Beth-El, younger members have joined. But the new members tend to be less involved in synagogue life than the older members.

The continuing disconnect has led to frustration on both sides, as synagogue members wonder why so few of the newcomers have shown interest in joining their congregations. Canter said that B’nai Jacob has tried holding services and Shabbat dinners downtown, but with little success.

“I just hate to think that it’s going to be a whole lost Jewish generation, even though we’re all making all these efforts for that not to happen,” said Canter.

Organizers like Weiss, in turn, have been exasperated by synagogues that seem to focus more on their fading membership than in transforming themselves for a new generation.

“We can’t force them to address the fact that memberships are dwindling and they are reaching the end of their institutional lives,” Weiss said. “If the institutions are in denial, there’s little one can do to bring them around.”

One problem is geography. With the exception of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, most of the existing synagogues are distant from the downtown areas and the Hudson waterfront, where the newcomers have settled.

But it also seems that many of the newcomers may not be interested in synagogue life.

“The truth is, people want a Jewish experience but not necessarily a religious experience,” said Raylie Dunkel, a Hudson Jewish trustee who is herself a member of Congregation B’nai Jacob. “They’re not interested in prayer groups. They really want a social experience, a havurah experience with other Jewish people, not necessarily as part of a religious group.”

Dunkel has had success, however, organizing informal Jewish social events in downtown Jersey City, including a wine-and-cheese tasting and Friday night potluck dinners. A group of younger parents who met through Dunkel’s Jewish social circle started up a toddler’s group on their own.

And at least some of the newcomers have demonstrated an affinity for synagogue life, and have left their mark on it, as the experience of the United Synagogue of Hoboken shows. Nearly abandoned in the 1970s, the Hoboken synagogue has twice as many families as it had a decade ago. On a well-attended Shabbat, there is sometimes not enough space for everyone to stand for a post-service Kiddush.

Part of the synagogue’s success, explains Rabbi Scheinberg, is attributable to its location in the heart of the gentrified part of Hoboken, a few minutes walk from the PATH train station and ferry terminal, where commuters are whisked right into downtown Manhattan. But, he adds, the congregation has also focused on reaching out to newcomers, advertising in secular newspapers, going to the PATH station to hand out menorahs or apples and honey for Jewish holidays, and keeping dues affordable for younger members.

Scheinberg also points out that Hoboken began to gentrify long before Jersey City, and that Bayonne has so far shown few signs of gentrification at all.

“The hope is that renewal will also come to some of these other communities, and that they should be ready for it,” he said.

If, that is, their Jewish institutions can hold on long enough. There is, it so happens, a beautiful old limestone synagogue near City Hall in downtown Jersey City, right in the heart of the gentrifying area. On a recent afternoon visit, the building’s ground floor hummed with activity, as young children, wearing skullcaps, pored over their books under the watchful eye of their instructor and recited their prayers. But the language of prayer was not Hebrew but Arabic. After the synagogue had sat empty for years, Muslims bought the building a decade ago and renovated it as a mosque.

Contact Anthony Weiss at weiss@forward.com

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