Michael Azeez has a long personal history with the Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue. “My earliest memory,” he said, “is in the synagogue with my father, tying his tallis in knots.”
It is something of a tribute, then, that Azeez has spearheaded the restoration of the historic building in southern New Jersey and opened, within the synagogue’s walls, the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage, named after his late father, a longtime philanthropist in the town.
The museum, which opened Sunday, contains artifacts and exhibits describing the history of Jews in Woodbine, as well as the history of the town as a whole. Above the museum, the refurbished Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue will continue to be used.
“During construction, a lady approached me and asked me what all the construction activity was about,” Azeez said. “I told her I was restoring this synagogue building. She said she had heard there had been some Jewish people who had lived in town and often wondered about it. It was then I knew I was on the right track.”
Woodbine is one of the first self-governing Jewish communities in America. At the end of the 19th century, 13 Russian Jews seeking to escape the cruelty of the czar fled to Woodbine, financed by philanthropist Baron de Hirsch, who envisioned an agricultural Jewish utopia in south Jersey. The fledgling farming community quickly realized that the land was not suitable for farming and turned instead to industry, building factories that brought affluence to the area for decades.
The Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue — built between 1893 and 1896 — was the epicenter of Judaism in the area, at one time serving hundreds of congregants. Over the years, the Jewish population dwindled. “Like other communities where the kids get educated, they move away,” said Azeez. Yet with the help of several devoted individuals, the synagogue remained intact, bearing a tornado and an economic downturn. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two and half years ago, Azeez purchased the land and building from the congregation and financed major renovations. A new roof was built, all the windows were replaced, the wiring was redone and the ground floor — which now houses the museum — was gutted. The reconstruction cost roughly $850,000; Azeez covered the bulk of the expenses.
Exhibits detail the history of the community and also provide basic information about Jewish culture, explaining everything from the Star of David to the Torah.
Speaking at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 6, two days prior to the official opening, Miles Lerman, chairman emeritus of the executive committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, emphasized the importance of the museum. Without it, Lerman said, “there is a strong possibility that the history of Jews in south Jersey could have gone into oblivion.”