Millions of people must drive through Fort Lee each year as they cross the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to Manhattan, but it’s fair to guess that most of them do not know much about this unique borough.
The town of Fort Lee, in the far east of Bergen County, just on top of the Hudson River Palisades, is a blend of the city and the suburbs. The George Washington Bridge is right at its heart, making transportation to and from Manhattan easy and convenient. Fort Lee faces Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood — home of Yeshiva University and home to many Jews, from Holocaust survivors to college students — and borders on seven other Bergen County towns — Cliffside Park, Edgewater, Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, Leonia, Palisades Park, and Ridgefield. It’s small — only about 2.4 square miles — but approximately 36,670 people live there. That makes it the second most populous municipality in the county, second only to Hackensack.
The town also has a storied past. Fort Lee was named for General Charles Lee, an English military officer who came to America and joined the revolutionary forces, and was second in rank to General George Washington. To honor Lee, Washington changed the name of the fort on the Palisades, Fort Constitution, to Fort Lee. About 150 years later, Fort Lee became the motion picture capital of America — it was the Palisades from which Pearl White dangled so many times as the endangered but always rescued heroine in the “Perils of Pauline.” Fort Lee has had its share of scandals as well: 1,119 people in Fort Lee filed claims to recover money lost to Bernie Madoff’s scams. In 2013, Fort Lee gained national attention and notoriety in connection with the politically toxic lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate.
Fort Lee is an ethnically diverse mix of peoples and cultures. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Armenians, many people from Spanish speaking countries, and several others are represented there. Over the last couple of years, Fort Lee has had an influx of Russian residents, some of whom are Jewish. Fort Lee also is home to a Jewish community; about 4.21 percent of its population, approximately 1,600 people, identify as Jewish.
There are five synagogues in this geographically small town. There is the Young Israel of Fort Lee, which is Orthodox and led by Rabbi Zev Goldberg; the New Synagogue of Fort Lee — Congregation Kehillath Baruch, which is Conservative and led by Rabbi Meir Berger; the Chabad Center of Fort Lee, which is Orthodox, led by Rabbi Meir Konikov; the Fort Lee Jewish Center, which is Conservative led by Rabbi Kenneth Stern, and the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee, whose new rabbi, Ilan Acoca, will begin his work there on August 24. While there aren’t any Reform synagogues in Fort Lee, there are several close by, in Leonia, Teaneck, and Tenafly.
The New Synagogue’s Rabbi Meir Berger, its founder, who also serves as cantor, said that the number of Jews in Fort Lee has increased tremendously. “The population has grown in the last couple of years,” he said. “The synagogues are also growing. All types of people attend — families with children, young singles, and even elderly people who have retired to Fort Lee.”
While there are plenty of families in Fort Lee, and many people choose to raise their kids there, the town is particularly appealing to young couples with small children as well as to retirees. For young couples starting out, Fort Lee offers proximity to Manhattan and the chance to live in the suburbs without having to buy a house. There are many apartment buildings that offer the convenience of what these couples may be leaving behind in New York City or Hoboken but still have a more laid-back vibe, fitting for their new roles as young parents.
Some people who grew up in Fort Lee return to raise their own families there. That includes Jennifer Cantor, who first moved to Fort Lee with her family in high school, left, and now is back, raising her own kids there. Ms. Cantor said that while “there seems to be a bit less of a Jewish presence than when I was growing up in Fort Lee, there are still many Jewish activities available. I especially like Chabad.”
All five of the local synagogues offer daily services as well as weekly Shabbat services and activities. All hold classes on topics ranging from Jewish law and philosophy to cooking and crafting. There certainly is something for everyone with respect to religious observance and style of services. Fort Lee’s apartment buildings and garden apartments, with their many amenities, are perfect for retirement living. It’s close not only to Manhattan and of course offers easy access to all of New Jersey, but it’s also close to suburban Rockland and Westchester counties. All are places where retirees’ grown children live. The town’s five synagogues and 2.5 mile radius means that there are houses of worship in walking distance to just about any part of town.
Two Fort Lee retirees, Rabbi Jacob and Judy Reiner, moved to Fort Lee four years ago from Belle Harbor, N.Y., where Rabbi Reiner led an Orthodox congregation for many years. “Fort Lee is a wonderful town,” he said. The couple attends Young Israel of Fort Lee, where Rabbi Reiner is the chairman of the board. “The synagogue is growing,” he added. “Many people attend. There are classes and projects there as well. There are so many wonderful and compassionate people there.”
One thing passersby must notice about Fort Lee is the new glass tower known as the Modern. It offers luxury apartments, and its developer, SJP Properties, plans to build a second tower as well. New construction around the Modern will be the home to many new shopping centers and restaurants, all of which will give Fort Lee even more of an urban feel.
In addition to the Modern, Fort Lee is also opening Hudson Lights, another set of apartment buildings and shopping centers, which will include restaurants, boutiques, and entertainment centers, such as the new and recently opened iPic Theater, which serves moviegoers a full meal while they are enjoying their film.
Geographically small Fort Lee is home to people from a myriad of faiths and nationalities, giving it a certain exotic flair. Jews and everyone else will feel at home and welcome there.