One of Bergen County’s oldest synagogues is becoming its newest Chabad outpost.
Shortly before Passover, Temple Beth El, founded in 1908 as the Hackensack Hebrew Institute and down to barely 45 members, transferred ownership of its building to the newly formed Chabad of Hackensack.
“We’re able to keep it a Jewish institution in Hackensack,” Pam Hecht, secretary of Beth El’s board of directors, said. “I’m very happy to have Chabad come in.”
For at least three years, the congregation, which is Conservative, will continue to hold services in the sanctuary, with its striking stained glass windows. “Our main concern has been to see to it that there’s a continued Jewish presence here, as there has been since at least 1908,” said Rabbi Dr. Robert Schumeister, who has led the congregation since 1980.
This summer, Rabbi Mendy Kaminker will move from Cherry Hill with his wife and five children to start running Chabad programming in Hackensack. “Our goal is that anyone from the Jewish community in Hackensack in the present or in the past can look at what Chabad is doing in the building and be really proud,” Rabbi Kaminker said.
Carolyn Kristal’s family joined the congregation in the 1930s. She remembers her father raising money to buy the present building on Summit Avenue. “They marched the Torahs from the old synagogue in downtown Hackensack all the way up here,” she remembered.
Then, there were 250 member families. Now, with the membership so much smaller, “it is not possible to continue,” she said.
Ms. Kristal lives in Fort Lee. She had seen that town’s Conservative congregation — Gesher Shalom, which once had 700 member families — sell its building to a Korean church.
“I didn’t want that to happen” to Beth El, she said. So she called up the head of the Chabad of Fort Lee, who passed the conversation to the head of Chabad Teaneck, Rabbi Ephraim Simon.
Rabbi Simon was interested.
“We thought for a long time that there could be a Chabad presence in Hackensack,” which is across the Hackensack River from Teaneck, he said. “There are thousands of Jews living on Prospect Avenue. There’s always a myriad of Jews in the hospital at any point in time. Every Shabbat or yom tov there are Jews walking from Hackensack Hospital to our Chabad house because we’re the closest Orthodox synagogue.”
Rabbi Simon said he gives the leaders of Beth El “a tremendous amount of credit. For all intents and purposes, they donated their building. We paid, but it wasn’t like a purchase — it was more to cover their expenses and repairs of the building that needed to be done.” This includes fixing roof damage not covered by insurance under its “acts of God” clause.
“We are very excited about the future there,” Rabbi Simon said. “We will be able to reach out to thousands of Jews in Hackensack. There are elderly Jews who are there, young professionals who are there, there are young families who are there as well. For the most part, it’s not an affiliated community — but for Chabad that’s irrelevant. Every Jew is a Jew. That’s our job: to find every Jew, to reach out to them and love them and bring them Jewish programming.
“I get calls from Hackensack to put up mezuzas and kasher homes and the people tell me how many more Jews are in their buildings. From that I get that picture that there are thousands of Jews there.
“If you put a pin on a map, you couldn’t have a better a location for a Jewish center,” he said. “It’s a block off Prospect, half a mile from the hospital.”
Ms. Kristal remembers when Temple Beth El was still called the Hebrew Institute — it adopted the Beth El name when it moved to its new building in 1971.
“It was more like an Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “My mother sat on the back, on the right, with all the women. My father sat on the front on the left side with my uncle and all the men. I was 5 and used to stay with my father.” That was in the 1940s.
“That was not the case once we moved up to Summit Avenue,” she continued. “Then it was Conservative.”
Hackensack is the county seat of Bergen County. Back then, it was a big deal. “The shopping was on Main Street,” Ms. Kristal said. “There were no malls. The rest of Bergen County almost didn’t exist. It was the center of the Jewish community. Teaneck was just starting.
“You could ride your sled in the wintertime in the empty lot. When I was 5 years old, I could walk around the block as long as I didn’t cross the street. There were no traffic lights. It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ but Beaver wasn’t Jewish.”
Ms. Hecht is another of the nine remaining synagogue members who trace their family’s membership in Beth El to its downtown origins. Her grandfather Philip Gralla, who was born in Poland, owned a furniture store in Hackensack. The store was “fairly successful until the Depression, when it went out of business,” she said.
Her father moved the family back to Hackensack in the 1950s and she grew up in the congregation. After moving away, she returned to Hackensack 20 years ago, settling three blocks away from Beth El.
“We had a lot of members at that point,” she said. “For the holidays we would have 400 people. We would set up extra chairs in the social hall.
“Over the years it ebbed. People moved out of Hackensack. The Jewish people who moved to Hackensack still maintained their ties to where they moved from and would return there for the holidays.”
Now, “there are no young families. Our average age skews to 70.”
Rabbi Schumeister came to Beth El immediately after being ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Then, it was a full-time pulpit. Now it is part time. (He is a psychiatrist, and he has a practice.) When the congregation’s agreement with Chabad expires in three years, Rabbi Schumeister will have been at the pulpit for more than 40 years.
“When I first came we had a Hebrew school jointly with the synagogue in Maywood and also the small Conservative synagogue in Rochelle Park. The Rochelle Park synagogue closed many years ago. Maywood eventually became a Reconstructionist synagogue. Now they meet in Temple Israel in Ridgewood.
“Unfortunately, it’s a trend. Truthfully, I think we hung on much longer than most given our numbers,” he said.
Although it started out Orthodox, “We began to count women in the minyan and give them aliyot already many years ago,” Rabbi Schumeister said. “Clearly that’s the difference between us and Chabad. And that’s why for the immediate future we’re going to maintain our own minyan. I don’t think that’s something we’re retreating from. We’ll see what happens down the road.”
Rabbi Schumeister said his synagogue long had benefited from first-generation Americans who moved to the high-rise apartment buildings on Prospect Avenue from Queens and the Bronx and Hudson County. “Many of them wanted to be able to walk to synagogue, at least on the high holidays. They were very traditional in their orientation and needed a synagogue in close proximity. I think that demographic has changed.
“Today, people whose parents were not born in Europe are less traditional and more inclined to drive. Even if they retire to Hackensack, they’re more inclined to drive back to where they came from on the holidays. This has been the biggest demographic challenge to us.”
Look back on his decades in the Hackensack pulpit, Rabbi Schumeister said the highlight “is the opportunity to enter people’s lives. To be with them in important moments, happy occasions and sad occasions, weddings and funerals,” he said. “You hope you’ve had a positive influence in helping people through difficult times.”
Rabbi Kaminker grew up in the Israeli town of Afula and studied in a Chabad yeshiva in Israel before coming to Crown Heights to study and be ordained. His wife Shterna is from St. Paul, Minnesota — as is Rabbi Schumeister. In Cherry Hill, his focus has been on programming for the Israeli community.
“We are really looking forward to this challenge,” he said of his new position. “We want to create a community that will be very welcoming. A place that will have open doors. Where you will feel comfortable.
“The most important thing we have is what the Lubavitcher rebbe has taught us, how we have the mitzvah, the obligation and the privilege, to go out and reach out and help out every Jew. Never to judge someone by the level of observance — it’s always to look at the soul, to look at what brings us together, to look at the fact we all belong to one Jewish people. When you go in with that attitude, you try to help any way that you can, be it physical or spiritual, any kind of support you can help with.”
There is no manual for starting a Chabad center, he said. “You just get a lot of belief and a lot of excitement about what you’re doing. It changes from location to location.
“Before Passover, I purchased a large amount of handmade shmura matzah. I got a list of addresses supposed to have Jewish people living in those addresses. I was knocking on doors, meeting people. There were some people who had not seen a rabbi in a long time. We sat together and we chatted. It was great. I also visited a lot of the office buildings in town.”
He will continue driving in to Hackensack from Cherry Hill until he moves in over the summer.
He praised Beth El’s “magnificent” building. “You can see the people who built it really put their heart into it, gave it their all,” he said. “We have a responsibility to all of this sweat and tears of the Jewish community. We have to preserve it and enhance it.”