Adas Emuno in Leonia is old.
The Reform synagogue is about to turn 150.
That doesn’t make it the oldest in the country, or even in the state, but it’s up there.
It certainly was the first synagogue in Hoboken; that small-but-tough city was incorporated in 1859, so it still was young when Congregation Adas Emuno was chartered in 1871.
The Civil War had ended just six years earlier, and Germans — both Jews and non-Jews — were flocking to the Mile-Square City (actually it’s closer to two miles, but who’s counting?). The Hudson River port city, a transportation hub even back then, and a manufacturing center as well then (but not now), was booming. (By now, the old plants have been turned into stylish condos.)
Adas Emuno stayed in Hoboken for about a century, and then it followed the Jews to Bergen County. After about five years in Fort Lee it moved to the building in Leonia that’s been its home for the last 50 years.
The congregation will kick off the celebration of its sesquicentennial year, as well as its jubilee in Leonia, at both streamed and live Shabbat services on October 22.
Last week, its rabbi, Barry Schwartz, and its president, Michael Fishbein, sat in the synagogue’s social hall to talk about its past, its present, and its future.
The extremely German Jews who created the very High Reform congregation “were community minded,” Rabbi Schwartz said. They wanted to pass on their specific traditions. “They wanted to have a place to celebrate the old days.”
Who were they? “We don’t know much about them — they probably were small business people.” They had met in the Odd Fellows Hall — the Odd Fellows were a charmingly named fraternal (and eventually sororal) group that organized itself into lodges and met in buildings with rooms that other groups could rent — but soon outgrew it. So they built themselves a synagogue; although it’s no longer a synagogue, it still stands in Hoboken. After a stint as a church, it was divided into apartments.
“They also, like many other Jewish groups, wanted to establish a cemetery,” Rabbi Schwartz said. They did, first in North Bergen, and then in North Arlington.
Adas Emuno is a small congregation with fiercely loyal members and deeply held values, which include a strong commitment to social action, holding itself open to the world around it while treasuring its traditions and Jewish core.
That’s visible in its history.
“I call it the Little Engine that Could,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “It’s small, on the periphery, not fancy, very intimate, very down to earth, and able to preserve through change.”
At the beginning, Adas Emuno conducted itself in German. Everything — its services, its Hebrew school, its siddurim, its meetings, its notes — were in German. Most of its historic artifacts have been lost or discarded — many, including the German-language prayerbooks that would have been a fascinating piece of American Jewish history, were thrown away during the move to Fort Lee, a decision that Rabbi Schwartz and Mr. Fishbein describe with dismay — but some of the minutes of early board and school board meetings survive.
Kurt Roberg of Tenafly, at 97, is the oldest member of Adas Emuno; we told his extraordinary story of escaping Nazi Germany, where he was born, in this paper last year.
When Mr. Roberg was a child, in the German school system, the letters he was taught were reserved only for the German language, he said last week. But during the 1920s and ’30s, the handwriting children were taught changed from that old style to the conventional Roman lettering we know today, which is used for German as well as for other European languages. (The handwritten German alphabet did not look like the Gothic fonts that were used in print, Mr. Roberg added.) That means that most handwritten German documents from before the war are illegible to most readers of modern German. But Mr. Roberg can read them.
So he has undertaken the job of translating some of those early documents. So far, he’s finished the first annual report, from 1872; it shows “where the money came from, and what the assets of the congregation were.” Of course, he added, “they’re all in 1872 valuation.”
He also can trace the evolution of language at Adas Emuno. Although at the beginning its Hebrew school was taught in German, “by about 1880, the report from the school committee is that the children didn’t have enough command of the German language” to keep it as the language of instruction. The kids grew up in America and they spoke English. So the board decided to switch to English in school as well.
He knows, from his own experience, how that transition would have happened, Mr. Roberg said. “Whatever happened in German was told in German. What happened in English was told in English.” Eventually, everything happened in English.
After that first batch of documents, from the community’s early days, much of its history is lost, but it chugged along in Hoboken until the 1960s. When it moved to Fort Lee, it shared a space with a Japanese church; when it went to Leonia, it housed another Japanese congregation. That, Rabbi Schwartz and Mr. Fishbein said, is typical of their community.
Its Leonia home “was built in 1940 as a Lutheran church,” Rabbi Schwartz said. Because Lutherans are not entirely unlike Jews, the building became available when the church split into two factions; the schism meant that both had to move out to find smaller spaces.
The synagogue now is small, intimate, and beautiful inside. Outside, its public space includes the peace garden, with a koi pond, a Zen garden, a stream that burbles and soothes, and gorgeous, huge old trees.
There are real advantages to being so small, the two men said. “Everyone is friends with each other,” Mr. Fishbein said. “We have no factions and no cliques,” Rabbi Schwartz added. “We are too small and too open for that.
“We had members whose house was totally flooded. We donated to help them. It will be months before they can move back in, so now we have formed a food train for them. And you can hardly get on the train, because we all want to do it. We are all so close.
“We are on the front lines. We estimate that two thirds of our younger families are intermarried, and these families are choosing to give their kids Jewish educations and Jewish lives. We are serving the people where they are today.”
The synagogue draws families from as far away as Weehawken, Rabbi Schwartz said, but many others live within walking distance. “We are a neighborhood synagogue,” he said. “The Leonia families enjoy just walking down the street to get here.”
“We traditionally have a Chanukah menorah on the lawn, and we sing songs outside every night of Chanukah, rain or shine or sleet or snow,” Mr. Fishbein said. “Each night it is something different.”
The two men talked about the synagogue’s traditional-sounding but unusual name. “It means the Congregation of the Faithful,” Rabbi Schwartz said. Yes, but why the spelling? “Well, they were German Jews, but they used eastern European Ashkenazi pronunciation,” or at least spelling, for their name. He’s not sure why, but it’s striking.
“What people like about the name, aside from the meaning, is that there is no other congregation that has it,” at least spelled this way, Mr. Fishbein said.
“This is a very roll-up-your-sleeves congregation,” Rabbi Schwartz added. “I serve it in a part-time capacity. We have a part-time student cantor — that’s Iris Karlin, who is a breath of fresh air and will be a star one day; in my 40 years in the rabbinate, I’ve never worked with anyone as spiritual or as nice — but we have no full-time staff at all. It’s really a do-it-yourself kind of shul.”
This is as good a time as any to mention Rabbi Schwartz’s full-time job. He’s the director of the Jewish Publication Society, a Philadelphia-based organization to which he used to commute regularly until advanced technology made the trip less and less necessary, and of course the pandemic ended it (the commute, not the job) entirely. It’s a big and important job, but it does not get in the way of his deep involvement in Leonia.
Overall, “I see a lot of continuity between 1891 and 2021,” Mr. Fishbein said. “The people who founded the synagogue would be very comfortable being in here with us. We haven’t changed our values in 150 years.”
“We are keeping faith with those who came before us,” Rabbi Schwartz agreed.