Hudson County’s Jewish community enjoys a growth spurt
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Hudson County’s Jewish community enjoys a growth spurt

Bayonne synagogue celebrates landmark anniversary

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Temple Emanu-El still serves the community after a century.

The members of Temple Emanu-El of Bayonne are proud to be a community resource.

“At the risk of offending members of other congregations, most of the leadership in Bayonne came from Temple Emanu-El,” said longtime member Lewis Ripps, reeling off the names of organizations headed by shul members.

According to the synagogue’s website, members have taken leadership roles “in the local JCC, Hadassah, Yiddish Club, the Jewish Family Service, and Bayonne civic associations. Many members have been honored by UJA-Federation of Bayonne and by the Bayonne Chapter of the American Conference on Diversity.”

“The people in the congregation take great pride” in this, said Rabbi Clifford Miller, the congregation’s religious leader. “We’re not just a congregation but part of a larger community.”

On June 4, the synagogue – founded in April 1911 – will celebrate its 100th year.

Ripps, now 79, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the shul, which has been located at Kennedy Boulevard and 29th Street throughout its long history. It was, he said, started by “prominent members of the business and professional communities” who felt that a new type of synagogue was needed. At the time, Bayonne was home to eight Orthodox shuls.

Still, while the founders wanted a synagogue where services could be conducted in English, they were equally concerned that it not be confused with a Reform synagogue. As a result, the original bylaws specified that the services were to be Orthodox.

“But it was never Orthodox,” said Miller, noting that the upstairs level was never limited to women, nor were women prevented from sitting downstairs.

Ripps pointed out that Temple Emanu-El didn’t start off as a Conservative institution “since the Conservative movement didn’t exist yet.” The United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues, wasn’t founded until 1913.

While most of his contemporaries have left town – moving, he said, primarily to Essex and Bergen counties – Ripps, a former board member, speaks proudly of his synagogue as an important house of worship, fortunate to have had rabbis who served the congregation for many years.

Miller has been with the synagogue for 24 years – 11 as senior rabbi – beginning his tenure there as associate rabbi under Rabbi Zachary Heller, who held the position for some 25 years. Before that, the synagogue was led by Rabbi Abraham Feinerman, who served for three decades.

“I had no intention of being the rabbi there,” said Miller, who works four days a week as a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary and seven days a week at the synagogue. “Still, if I lived in Israel and had only two jobs, I’d be considered semi-retired,” he joked.

When Heller retired, leaving Miller as rabbi, he was asked to stay until the shul found a successor.

“But they haven’t found anyone else,” he said, noting that the shul has around 70 member-families at present.

While membership has undoubtedly declined – “We used to have so many people on Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah that we had to rent space elsewhere,” he recalls – he tells the remaining members that they should be proud.

“We’ve trained good leaders and synagogue supporters for all over New Jersey,” he said. “It’s a sign of success. We brought up our kids to be active in the synagogue and they support the synagogues in their own communities.”

As for the older members who left town, “The people no longer here are in retirement communities in south Jersey and Florida,” he said, “but they’re still active in synagogues.”

Changing demographics have had a large impact on the shul and on Bayonne as a whole.

Miller said the synagogue’s Hebrew school used to be “quite sizeable,” sharing teachers and activities with Temple Beth Am, Bayonne’s Reform congregation. He believes this kind of cooperation is “the way the community ought to go.” Today, however, Beth Am shares its educational program with other Reform synagogues.

Despite its small size, Temple Emanu-El continues to be active, said Miller.

“People are amazed that a congregation with 70 families still has services seven days a week,” he said. “They don’t realize that we’re still fully active.” In fact, he added, the congregation is preparing to host a guest lecturer as well as a movie series.

Fully egalitarian, the synagogue had a woman president as early as the 1970s. In addition, women receive aliyot and lead prayer services.

For the anniversary celebration, to be held June 4, organizers are asking members and former members to bring in mementos of the last 100 years – whether photographs of the synagogue choir, the Hebrew school, or a bar mitzvah celebration.

“It will be a chance to reminisce together,” said Miller of the planned luncheon, “a chance to recall funny stories.”

Asked to look ahead, Miller said he’s not good at predicting the future.

“I came to Bayonne in the1980s expecting that in a year or so there would be no congregation and no position for a rabbi. I was wrong 24 years ago. I don’t dare make any forecasts now.”

For further information about the anniversary luncheon, call the synagogue office at (201) 436-4499.

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