Hoboken’s Star of Israel dons a hard hat
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Hoboken’s Star of Israel dons a hard hat

Armed with a “kippah of steel” and a foreman’s shofar, the United Synagogue of Hoboken broke ground on Sunday, embarking on a restoration project for the 92-year-old Star of Israel synagogue, which was recently added to the New Jersey and the National Registers of Historic Places.

“It’s the generosity of this community that has enabled the restoration to take place,” said USH’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. Since setting restoration goals in 2005, the congregation has received a $280,000 preservation grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Further funding comes from USH member donations and a matching grant from the Kaplan Family Foundation. According to Ken Schept, the congregation’s president, the restoration will begin with replacing the roof and rewiring the sanctuary.

Signaling the start of the restoration of the historic Star of Israel Synagogue, United Synagogue of Hoboken, past president Rob Harari blows the shofar, surrounded by children from the Learning Center and Kaplan Cooperative Preschool.

USH has also secured a grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund for an innovative Jewish neighborhood program that aims to recreate the community atmosphere that existed in Hudson County more than 100 years ago. “This is not just a matter of restoring a building,” Schept said. “It is a re-emerging of a community and how it was when the community was established.”

The Star of Israel community was formed in 1905 by Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe. After a decade of fund-raising and collaboration with local architect Max Beyer, the onion-domed synagogue was ready to welcome Hoboken’s growing Jewish community. But when the city’s economy declined after World War II, residents abandoned the Star of Israel and headed to the suburbs. Except for the High Holy Days, the building remained shuttered.

Revitalization began in the 1970s when Jewish families began to return to Hoboken. The Conservative congregation of USH moved into the Star of Israel, and many members feel they have reconnected with the building’s original immigrant spirit. “When I’m in the sanctuary, I feel like I’m in Eastern Europe – especially without the air conditioning,” said USH member Lisa Finn. “It’s gritty. It’s soulful.” Nostalgia aside, for most members, a central cooling system will be a welcome addition.

On the humid morning of the groundbreaking, special guests, including city and state officials and former USH presidents, gathered in the sanctuary. In attendance were New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and Hoboken Mayor David Roberts. When Menendez stepped up to the bimah, he broke the ice with a joke about visiting a Conservative synagogue. “Before coming here today,” he said, “I had to research the [Jewish] term ‘conservative’ – ,as someone who considers himself moderate to liberal.”

Sen. Robert Menendez spoke at the restoration kickoff celebration. photos by sandy Burstein

“What you celebrate today is much more than an important historic building,” continued Menendez. “I believe that the heart of the synagogue is in the Jewish tradition of learning. We say to you ‘baruch atah,'” and correcting himself with a chuckle, he added, “I mean ‘mazel tov!'”

The Star of Israel has joined the ranks of other landmarks and historic buildings in the metropolitan area, including the Museum at Eldridge Street, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum as fonts of Jewish and immigrant history.

On the New Jersey front, Scheinberg has noticed an increased interest in Hoboken Jewish genealogy. He noted that descendants of former Hoboken residents visit the Star of Israel to seek out family names on pew plaques.

“Jews have ancestors that passed through the Lower East Side,” Scheinberg said, “and Jews also have ancestors that passed through Hoboken. Periodically it happens that people move to Hoboken and then a Jewish relative says, ‘Oh, our great-grandfather lived in Hoboken.’ In this way, the history of the community is ever-present.”

But many old synagogues have been destroyed or converted into luxury condos and churches. The Star of Israel faced similar threats. “Some suggested that the congregation sell this building,” said Ron Rosenberg, former president of USH. “This building was never sold because the people of faith knew that better days lay ahead.”

Menendez echoed Rosenberg’s comments: “It is flourishing once again because of the foresight of 100 years ago.”

“It is beautiful right now,” said Roberts, “and I can only imagine what it is going to be like in a few short years.”

The ceremony closed with a shofar blast by Rob Harari, past president of USH. Scheinberg explained the unlikely correlation of shofars and construction work. “In ancient times,” he said, “the shofar was one of the loudest sounds that would be heard. It was used to gather the people at times of celebration. It would be used as an alarm at times of danger. Today our shofar blast also functions as a siren you might hear on a construction site, indicating that our synagogue restoration is under way.”

In a post-celebration interview, Scheinberg elaborated on the shofar-construction-site theme: “When trucks are backing up, they make a beeping sound to warn people, and when the cranes start up, they make sounds to warn people.”

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