Has time run out for West New York shul?

Has time run out for West New York shul?

Barely a minyan, Shaare Zedek faces price of maintenance deferred

The sanctuary at Shaare Zedek.
The sanctuary at Shaare Zedek.

It has been a long time since the town of West New York boasted three kosher poultry shops — each with its own shochet to butcher the chickens it sold.

West New York once was a center of the embroidery industry. It was said that 90 percent of the insignia on the uniforms worn by the millions of American G.I.s during World War II were embroidered in West New York. Back then, most of the embroiderers were Jewish, and the city’s enormous Shaare Zedek Synagogue was filled with more than a thousand people on the High Holidays.

In the years that followed the war, the Jews who lived in the one-square-mile town were replaced by other demographic groups; in the 1960s West New York became known as Little Havana. Six miles south of Fort Lee and the George Washington Bridge, two miles north of  Weehawken and the Lincoln Tunnel, bypassed by the New Jersey Turnpike, West New York and its Jewish history was mostly forgotten.

Yet until late last year, a minyan continued to meet on Shabbat mornings at Shaare Zedek. It was a minyan that brought together old-timers who never left West New York; Cuban Jews who had settled in West New York to be with fellow Cubans but were grateful to have found a synagogue they could walk to, and descendants of the founders who commuted from the suburban diaspora in Bergen County to help make the minyan.

Dan Kaminsky, who lives in Oradell, is one such commuter. His great grandfather was one of the congregation’s founders, back in 1912. His great uncle recruited him to join the minyan, and for a time it looked like the synagogue might hold out long enough to benefit from gentrification bleeding in from increasingly pricey Hudson County neighbors, like Jersey City and Hoboken.

Time may have run out.

With the old-timers not getting any younger, last fall Shabbat attendance began to dip below the required ten men. (Shaare Zedek is Orthodox.) And when a building inspector came by to approve a minor plumbing repair, he closed down the whole building.

Sometimes, it turns out, maintenance deferred finally explodes.

“It’s ready to collapse,” Mr. Kaminsky quoted the building inspector as saying. The women’s balcony is loose. The electricity was never updated when building codes changed. There are no fire extinguishers or sprinklers.

It’s not easy or cheap retrofitting an early 20th century building for the 21st century.

Generally, the Shabbat minyan had been meeting in a small side building. (The congregation did use the main sanctuary to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Mr. Kaminsky’s father’s  bar mitzvah.) Nobody was saying that the women’s balcony actually was safe.

Now, though, the side building is off limits until the whole complex is repaired — and that requires money and resources that the 13 or so local synagogue members don’t have.

The easiest course of action would be to sell the property to a developer who would tear down the building.

Shaare Zedek, pictured in a Google Streetview image taken during Sukkot.
Shaare Zedek, pictured in a Google Streetview image taken during Sukkot.

Destroying the synagogue, however, is everyone’s least favorite choice. “My great grand parents started it so I’m emotionally attached to it,” Mr. Kaminsky said.

But can they find an institution — a yeshiva, a public school, a homeless shelter — that would be willing to keep the building and repair it?

Can they find a deep-pocketed donor who could help them make repairs while they keep waiting for a new generation of Jews to come to town to re-inhabit the gorgeous old building?

Morris Herzig, 86, remembers when the building was full. He first came to Shaare Zedek when he was six years old. That was in 1935, when his father moved his family from the Lower East Side to work as a shochet at one of the chicken stores. The elder Mr. Herzig and his wife had come to America from Galicia in 1927, two years before Morris was born.

He remembers when Bergenline Avenue, the town’s main shopping strip, was filled with Jewish-owned clothing stores and kosher delicatessens. “It was a very thriving Jewish environment,” he said. “It was a typical immigrants world. They were not shomer shabbos. They were shul oriented — they came to shul in the morning — and kosher.

“Post World War Two, children left West New York when they got married because it was basically a blue-collar town. The housing stock was very old and they wanted to get out of there,” he said.

Jews have moved into the new upscale buildings that have gone up in West New York. But not Jews who want to join Shaare Zedek.

“When they see what’s there, with a mechitza and everything, they don’t want to get involved with that kind of environment. Every time a high rise building went up, the consensus was to go canvas for Jews. In my building, something like 45 apartments are Jewish. They’re not interested.

“It’s very painful to speak about this because obviously there’s no shul now in West New York. It has gone the way of all flesh. It’s over,” he said.

Emmanuel de Miranda wouldn’t be the Jew he is were it not for Shaare Zedek.

De Miranda, 73, came to America from Cuba in 1985. His parents already were here. His father was from an old Sephardic Jewish family that had lived in Cuba for three generations. His mother was Catholic.

He settled into West New York, two blocks away from the shul. One day, he noticed a sign: “This Passover, learn how to read from right to left.”

He joined the beginners Hebrew class, studying with the congregation’s rabbi, Leon Mozeson. That led to his converting to Judaism, “with all the Orthodox procedures. I had my bar mitzvah after I was a grown up man.

“For 28 years, all my life has been around this shul,” he said. “I’ve attended every Shabbos.”

Before coming to America, “the situation in Cuba was not very good, with communism and so forth. People tried not to show their religiousness.” He had studied international law and languages in Russia, but he never joined the Cuban Communist Party so he couldn’t work as a lawyer. Instead, he became a language teacher and translator. In America, he found work at a school teaching adult ed, and later became its director.

Back in the late 80s, when he first came to the synagogue, “We had a membership of almost 200. We had minyans every morning and 50 to 60 people attended regularly on Shabbos. We had members that had already retired or moved to other towns nearby but couldn’t attend on Saturdays. We had a sisterhood and  regular monthly meetings of the board of directors. We had a lot of activities.

Now, “We don’t know how we’re going to save the building, a landmark that nobody seems to care about,” he said.

David Babani was also a member of the shul for just more than a quarter of a century. He came to America from Cuba when he was 19. His parents were Sephardic Jews from Turkey. He lived in Union City for three years before he moved to West New York. After Rabbi Mozeson retired, and the rabbi who followed also retired, he took on the role of assistant gabbai, helping to organize the services.

He recalls the hardships of growing up in Havana — but  being Jewish there wasn’t one of them.

Castro “took everybody’s businesses but the shuls he didn’t bother,” Mr. Babani said. Canadian Jews helped the Jewish community in Cuba. “They managed to get us the matzah for Pesach, the wine, kosher meat every week. In Havana we had a shochet and everything,” he said.

America was “a big, big change,” he said. “The first thing is freedom. You have food to buy and clothes to buy. In Cuba everything is restricted, unfortunately.

“Right now we need a big pocket to open his heart and pocket to help us out, to do at least the basics of what the town expects, to get the roof properly fixed and solve some of the electrical problems we have. We need somebody to help us with fundraising, or pointing us in the right direction,” he said.

“This is a beautiful building that’s a hundred years old. Let’s hope people will open their hearts.

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