After riding the fortunes of Hackensack up and down over the last century, Temple Beth El there is reaching its centennial year in ‘008. The congregation is inviting past members and families to join in its commemorative events, while looking to attract new members with the celebration of its history and new programs.
It is also, according to Larry Eisen, a 35-year member who, with his wife Marsha, raised two children at the Conservative egalitarian synagogue, exploring the possibility of including an Orthodox minyan. The shul was originally Orthodox.
Temple Beth El’s current building was built in 197′.
"It’s fascinating the way Bergen County and Hackensack have changed in 100 years," says Rabbi Robert Schumeister, who has been at Temple Beth El since 1980. "I was told that Main Street years ago was a big shopping street. Lots of the merchants there were Jews, and the Jewish community came to Hackensack. Hackensack was once the hub of Jewish life in Bergen County; there were Jews in Hackensack before there were Jews in Teaneck. The Y used to be here, before it moved to Washington Township. Many Jews who were raised here have gone on to prominence in other areas of Bergen County."
These days Hackensack has many Hispanic residents as well as members of other ethnic groups. Housing ranges from luxury high-rises to middle-class suburban homes to blue-collar neighborhoods.
Eisen says that the changed demographics of Hackensack mean that there are few Jewish families in town, although he feels that may be changing soon, with more Orthodox people moving in. Most of the shul’s membership comes from the high-rises on Prospect and Summit avenues, but, according to Eisen, the majority of the Jews in these buildings either go back to synagogues in the towns they moved from or are not affiliated. "Many of them are snowbirds and not looking for permanent roots. They come only on holidays." The Hebrew school closed some years ago, and membership now numbers about 80 member-families.
Eisen added, "We’re working with an outreach group from Yeshiva University to find a structure or format that would retain a viable Conservative congregation, but at the same time accommodate a dynamic Orthodox group. This is a big building, and it needs to be used."
The only synagogue in the seat of Bergen County, Beth El was one of the first Jewish congregations in the county, chartered in 1908 as the Hackensack Hebrew Institute. The ‘4 charter families, who came originally mostly from Newark, Passaic, and Paterson, met in a variety of venues, from the State Street Armory and the German Odd Fellows Hall on Main Street, to the Bergen County Odd Fellows Hall, also on Main Street, and later the Washington Institute on Main and Warren Streets.
The congregation bought a house and adjoining plot of land at State and Meyer streets, then designed and built a building, which opened in 19’1, for $35,000. An addition was built in 1957. Funds were raised to build the current building on Summit Avenue, which opened in 197′. In 1974 the Hasbrouck Heights Jewish Center merged with Temple Beth El.
"Our strengths are that we have a very beautiful building, an extraordinarily fine, intelligent rabbi, and a cantor [Cantor Eliezer Kornreich] with a beautiful voice," said Eisen. "We’re a small, friendly group. Everybody here knows you. If something happens to somebody in the congregation, we all take it in a personal way. Every person matters."
As part of the year-long commemoration, Temple Beth El is offering for sale prints of an original work of art, "Tree of Life," an acrylic and oil painting by temple member and artist Marius Sznajderman. Signed and numbered prints are $100.
On Oct. ‘1, the "Second Century" celebration will kick off with a presentation on the synagogue’s stained glass windows by Donald Samick, president of J&R Lamb Studios, the company that designed the windows when the synagogue was built in 197’.
Other events planned for the centennial year include a Tricky Tray fund-raiser Nov. 18 at 1 p.m., to which the public is invited, and a show, now in the planning stage, set for January, which will include a comedian, a singer, and a magician. On June 1, Temple Beth El will hold its annual gala, honoring past and present member families.
The planning committee, headed by Beth El president Mark Zettler and his wife, Andrea, is searching for past members to join the festivities. "If you or your family were members of the Hackensack Hebrew Institute or Temple Beth El, maybe you became a bar/bat mitzvah, were married, or had a baby naming here, please call the temple office," says Mark Zettler, (’01) 34′-‘045.