If the ability to share and chronicle the story of Jewish life in Hudson and Bergen counties began 75 years ago with the establishment of The Jewish Standard as our area’s principal Jewish paper, then the beginnings of Jewish organizational life in Teaneck, perhaps its leading community, also then began with the establishment of the Jewish Center of Teaneck as the community’s first Jewish house of worship.
The current Jewish Center of Teaneck buildling (upper right) and the Center’s congregation celebrating New Year’s in 1933.
Joy Zacharia Appelbaum notes in "The History of the Jews of Teaneck" (1977) that the center began with High Holy Day services in 1933. Its wandering but uninterrupted development took a path of progress with the congregation’s first home in Israel Doskow’s art studio on Elm Street, then in a store across from the municipal green, onward to the Masonic Hall (the former residence of Bernard and Minna Lippman) on Monterey Avenue, and after that to the state troopers house on Queen Anne Road.
By 1948, however, the same year as the creation of the State of Israel, with the dislocation of the war years behind it, the center went forward with its long delayed plans to construct a synagogue, holding groundbreaking ceremonies for the Prince Street building before an eager audience of 400 people. Groundbreaking for the Sterling Place building took place in May 17, 1953, nine days before the installation of Rabbi Dr. Judah I. Washer as its spiritual leader.
Under Rabbi Washer’s leadership, the center and the community that grew out of it would experience unprecedented growth. It was the leadership of the center, both rabbinic and lay, that in a very real way planted the seeds for the full flowering of Teaneck as a bustling bedroom community of New York City. Rabbi Washer took up the challenges of a yet nascent community, and among his countless achievements in civic, communal, and religious circles was successfully making the case for Jewish doctors to be given the right to practice in the town’s hospital and for public schools to respect Jewish students’ needs on Jewish holidays.
Many of today’s Jewish residents in Teaneck, who enjoy the fruits of these earlier labors, might not be aware of the difficulties Jews faced in those early years in buying homes for their growing families and of the deed restrictions on the purchase of real estate that even made it necessary for the center’s leaders, most notably the late Benjamin Gordon, to buy the site on which to build the synagogue through a non-Jewish third party.
So much of what today is blessedly taken for granted and relished in a community with close to ‘0 Jewish houses of worship and an equal number of kosher eateries, not to mention countless other amenities, including various Jewish day schools, was built on the backs of the visionary and courageous leadership of the Jewish center at a time when it was the only Jewish game in town.
Center members marched against the anti-Semitic forces of the local chapter of the German Bund. Center members were the first Jews to get involved in civic leadership, on the Township Council, statewide government, the board of education and the Human Rights Commission, to mention only a few areas of what was intense, active, and broad-based civic engagement. The center’s membership would eventually find itself internally conflicted and torn over the issue of school integration some 40 years ago. The local Jewish federation/UJA and its various agencies and Israel Bonds also developed out of the ranks of the Jewish center’s leadership.
All of these events and involvements, which can hardly be listed or done justice in one article and are deserving of their own volume, point to a proud history for the Jewish Center of Teaneck as the township’s first and pioneering synagogue and by extension — given its expansive facility that would come to include a gym and swimming pool along with a Hebrew school for more than 800 students, clubs for crafts and other social, cultural, and recreational outlets — the Jewish Community Center and center of gravity for this burgeoning community.
That was then, and indeed times have changed. The center over the years would encourage and spawn the growth of other synagogues, and offer its classroom facilities as an incubator and start-up location for various Jewish day schools in the area. It remains one of the premier locations to host a simcha, and of late has developed a robust calendar of programming around educational, cultural, religious and recreational activities. The center’s daily minyan continues with the distinction of being the longest uninterrupted daily minyan that meets in Bergen County, and now is held with a mechitzah to invite the participation of Teaneck’s large Orthodox population.
Indeed much has happened and changed, all of which have in various ways been covered in print in the Standard’s pages over these last 75 years. The Jewish Center of Teaneck, which continues to respond to the demands and challenges of our contemporary times, has been proud to grow alongside of the Standard as its twin in age and experience. Our respective stories and shared path speak of an awareness and openness to the opportunities that abound in our backyard for creating multiple points of entry for meaningful Jewish engagement. We are proud to be another "standard bearer" in the Teaneck community and to look back with the paper on these 75 years with warm sentiments of nostalgia and pride in our achievements.
Every history by necessity is a blend of sorrows and celebrations, setbacks and progress, disappointments and achievements. For the bitter and the sweet, for the pain and the pleasure, we can indeed be grateful. Seventy-five years is a lot of history. Let it then be studied and claimed for posterity not in the vacuum of the present, but in its totality, with an appreciation of its variegated form, the texture of the landscape that has brought us to this time. Let us look not only for our commonalities as we set forward in the future, but for the difference and diversity that needs to be in any healthy community and that ultimately gives it its strength and character.