“Unfortunately after 91 years of existence, the membership of Temple Beth El of North Bergen has gotten to a point where we can no longer survive on our own,” said Craig Bassett, president of the board at the temple, last week.
Beth El, located at 300 75th St., held its final service in May of this year. Since then, congregants have been attending services elsewhere, mostly at Temple Israel in Cliffside Park. The two temples have been discussing a merger since the beginning of the year. Beth El intends to put the matter to a vote and get approval from its members.
Then it will be time to think about selling the Beth El building, with its grand stained glass windows.
“The sadder story is that North Bergen will be losing its formal Jewish presence,” said Bassett. “There has been one other synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, across the park from us. They’re still in existence but not holding services.”
“This is something that happens from time to time, and is often a way for communities to consolidate and strengthen themselves.” -- Rabbi Robert Scheinberg
“North Bergen used to be a very Jewish community,” said Bassett. “The heyday was probably in the ’70s. At the peak Beth El had hundreds of families that were members. I would guess easily 300 families. There was a religious school for children growing up to learn Hebrew.”
Then in the 1980s things began to change. The neighborhood demographic shifted. “Families started moving to Bergen County,” said Bassett. “As parents got older they started moving to Florida and other places.”
Those that remained did not feel the need to worship in the same manner. “One of the surprising trends is that American Jews are very proud of being Jewish, their heritage, but fewer and fewer are joining synagogues and participating in more traditional Jewish lifestyle,” said Bassett. “It used to be when you were an observant Jew and you were moving from one place to another, part of your decision was based on where’s the synagogue and where’s the kosher butcher. Now the reality is they move to this area because they want to be close to New York City, to be convenient for work, for their social life. The question of a synagogue, that comes later.”
Among the reasons he cited for the shift were the multitude of distractions today. Also, “more skepticism and cynicism about religion in general. It’s definitely part of an overall change in society, and frankly it’s not just impacting the Jewish community. You’re finding this with other religions too, mainly Christianity. It’s part of a larger change in society with respect to organized religion.”
By 2014, membership in the temple was down to about 30 member units. (Individuals or families are counted as one unit, afforded a single vote.) Beth Israel in Cliffside Park has about 80 member units, according to Bassett.
The goal of the merger is more than just pooling resources. “The challenge for us is to make ourselves relevant, to create a community that they will want to be part of,” said Bassett.
To that end they have instituted transportation options to the new site and are working on incorporating social media. “People have very short attention spans,” he said. “They want entertainment. Some churches bring in Christian rock bands. Their services are focused on entertainment. There’s lots of discussion going on. No one has that nut cracked.”
Temple Beth El hopes to hold a vote within the next few weeks and conclude the merger in the autumn.
Reversing trends in Bayonne
“There used to be 12 Orthodox congregations in Bayonne,” said Rabbi Jacob Benzaquen of Bayonne’s Temple Emanu-El, located at 735 Kennedy Blvd. “Right now there are only three.”
“The heyday was in the ’60s,” he continued, “when you could barely get a seat in the synagogue. Adults now talk about when they were children they had to literally squeeze between parents to get a seat.”
Benzaquen too cites shifting demographics and migration to other regions, especially the South, as reasons for the change. He also points to concerns about Israel that have consumed the public consciousness, and the increasing number of interfaith marriages that result in families being less likely to attend services.
However, he sees reason for optimism.
“The trend is starting to reverse,” he said. “Our morning services are strengthening. We’re starting to see more people. We’re doing what we can to encourage it. We’ve done a lot of upgrading and fixing of the physical space. We just started our Hebrew school. We call it Jewish Learning Project, to get away from the old model. We use a Montessori based approach, very child-centric.”
Currently the temple has about 80 member units.
Describing the rabbi in North Bergen as “wonderful,” Benzaquen said, “He’s dynamic and a very down to earth person so I think the congregation will hold on. Hoboken had the same issue, they were ready to close, and right now they have had a bit of a renaissance.”
“That will spill over to Bayonne,” he predicted.
Healthy in Hoboken
“There was a merger in the 1940s between two synagogues in Hoboken,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. “This is something that happens from time to time, and is often a way for communities to consolidate and strengthen themselves. It’s a difficult process that involves challenging compromises but it often yields a united community that’s stronger than either of the original communities could achieve on their own.”
As an example of a temple that adapted to change, Scheinberg cited a reform temple in Hoboken that sold their building in the 1960s and relocated to Leonia due to demographic shifts, and is still in existence today. On the other hand, “there was an Orthodox synagogue in Jersey City that closed maybe 10 years ago,” he recalled.
Scheinberg is the rabbi at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, 115 Park Ave. Decades before his involvement, the congregation went through its own turmoil. “The synagogue in Hoboken was in a deep, deep decline,” he said. “It probably got to the point where the rational thing to do was simply to assume that it would have no future. But there were some visionary people who anticipated that there would be the potential for the Jewish community to grow in Hoboken.”
And so they held on, and today, “we’re doing very nicely,” he said. “We’ve experienced either stability or growth each year for the last 20 years or so. We have about 315 households that are members and then many, many more who are not necessarily members but have meaningful relationship with the synagogue.”
West New York, Union City, and Weehawken
“There’s another synagogue in West New York; it’s Temple Shaare Zedek,” said Bassett, from North Bergen. “Some of the folks from Beth Abraham go there now. It’s very small and it’s an Orthodox congregation.”
Shaare Zedek, which services neighboring towns including Weehawken and Union City, celebrated its centennial in 2012. Some of the families have been with the congregation since the beginning, over a hundred years ago.
According to the synagogue’s website, “our congregation is growing (slowly) and diversely, with Cubans, Israelis, and descendants of the founding families in the current congregation.”
The Union City area has a small but notable Hasidic population, serviced by at least one community center and school. Union City has descendants of at least two Hasidic dynasties who settled there, one from the Ukraine and one from Romania.
Members of Temple Beth Abraham in North Bergen could not be reached for comment in this article.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.