At its annual dinner June 10, Fort Lee’s Cong. Gesher Shalom will honor its gabbai, Carl Hess, who at age 87 has devoted more than half a century to the synagogue. He will receive the shul’s first Shofar Award for his "tireless and endless dedication to Cong. Gesher Shalom."
"The synagogue is my hobby and my pleasure," Hess told The Jewish Standard Monday. "I feel very good and very proud. I never looked for any rewards; I do it because I enjoy doing it."
Carl Hess will receive Cong. Gesher Shalom’s first Shofar Award for his 56 years of service to the shul.
Hess joined the shul in 1951, three months after it formed, and became president four years later. For 56 years, he has acted as gabbai, blowing the shofar for 50 years at High Holy Day services, and runnning the synagogue’s daily minyan for the past 10 years. He also runs the Shabbat mincha/maariv services and shalosh seudah, and the daily minyan, as well as having spent 1′ years as the synagogue’s executive director.
"He’s a real staple of the congregation and symbolizes in a lot of ways what altruism is about," said Bruce Prince, director of synagogue growth and development.
When the planning committee met to decide who should receive the shul’s first service award, Hess was first on the list, said Prince.
"He’s a warm and really caring person and an extremely devoted to everybody in the congregation," said Helen Hyman, a member of the planning committee. "He is an extraordinary mensch."
Rhea Hess said that if the couple want to go out of town, her husband must first make arrangements to cover the daily minyan.
"My husband’s involvement is everything forever and his first love, maybe after me," she said with a laugh. "It’s what he loves to do, it’s what he believes in."
Attendance at the daily minyan is as much a result of love of Hess as it is religious devotion, said Rabbi Andrew Warmflash.
"He is in many ways the heart and soul of the synagogue," he said.
The planning committee agreed that Hess’ efforts to include people in religious activities earned him the award.
"Carl is totally attentive to honoring people with an aliyah if there’s a yahrtzeit," Hyman said. "He makes it his business to know. Whenever we have anyone visiting on a Shabbat he makes it a point of greeting them and giving them some kind of honor."
Hess grew up in Germany, escaping just before World War II. Along with Hess, the synagogue will honor 39 other congregants who rebuilt their lives after the Shoah. The planning committee purposely chose not to use the phrase "Holocaust survivor" because not all of those to be honored were in concentration camps. Some were hidden through the war, and some, like Hess, escaped before it began.
"We’ve intended it to be inclusive rather than exclusive because we’re not limiting it to people who survived the camps," said Hyman.
"The idea for us was to give honor to their contributions and commitment after the Shoah," added Prince.
Hess was one of eight children. In 1934, his oldest brother learned that the SA troops would be coming for him. Their mother, who had a good friend in New Jersey, decided it was time to get out and arranged for visas for the oldest brother and the next eldest. In 1936, Hess’s sister escaped, followed by the 17-year-old Hess in 1937 and the rest of the family in 1938, just before Kristallnacht.
"We often think about the story of the survivors as a story of tragedy and it is because of what they went through," said Warmflash. "[But] we fail to pay tribute to the heroism that really enabled them to rebuild their lives after the Shoah."
Hess spent a lot of time in synagogue in his childhood and was "delighted" to get involved when he and his wife joined the Fort Lee shul more than 50 years ago.
"I just hope it’s going to be a successful function and I’m delighted most people in the center who know me are appreciative of what I’m doing," he said.