Real estate bargains, many with spectacular cityscape views, nearby parkland, and a quick commute to Manhattan are drawing Jewish singles and families with young children to Hudson County. What these recent arrivals may not yet know and what a new coalition of community activists aims to reverse is that Jewish life here has a proud tradition, just waiting to be discovered.
The communal infrastructure erected in the first quarter of the last century suffered decline as urban residents relocated to suburban towns and villages. Now, though, a new generation has rediscovered the attractions of urban living. "The young Jewish professionals relocating here are putting down roots in Hudson County," said Adam Weiss, a Jersey City resident and driving force behind an initiative to raise the profile of the Hudson County Jewish community. "This is not just a stopping-off point for them on the way to the suburbs, like it was for previous generations."
The time has therefore come, say Weiss and several dozen others who attended a meeting he organized last week at the Bayonne Jewish Community Center, to revitalize those Jewish institutions that still exist and support the launch of new businesses and organizations to serve the growing population of Hudson County Jewry. Emblematic of these is a grocery store featuring kosher and Israeli products recently established by an Israeli couple in Jersey City.
The group, consisting of rabbis and professional and lay leaders of a dozen synagogues and other Jewish organizations, examined demographic trends in Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, North Bergen, and Union City and considered ways they might collaborate to strengthen their collective future. All denominations on the Jewish spectrum were represented, as were different age groups, reflecting the community’s remarkable diversity and cooperative spirit, said Jack Ryger, the northeast regional director for United Jewish Communities, the New York-based federation umbrella agency.
A smaller working committee will now develop action plans to engage the unaffiliated. Several proposals floated the set-up of a Website for people to access a community calendar and production of an informational packet for real estate agents will be researched and others designed in time for a follow-up meeting set for Thursday, June 14, at 7:15 p.m., at the Bayonne JCC. For information, e-mail Info@HudsonJewish.com.
Weiss, 41, an executive recruiter who works in midtown Manhattan, explained that while not all the Hudson County Jewish institutions face the same challenges Hoboken’s United Synagogue, for one, has a waiting list for its highly regarded Kaplan Cooperative Preschool it was important for everyone to get together to address common concerns. Among these are the precarious finances of several of the county’s historic synagogues.
"Part of the reason for holding the meeting was to let people from the older, outlying communities know to hold on because there is spillover from Hoboken into Jersey City, Bayonne, and Union City," said Weiss, adding, "If they fold, the cost to rebuild will be in the tens of millions of dollars. If they hold on, history will be preserved."
In fact, Weiss noted, Cong. Aguda Sholom on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City, an Orthodox congregation, closed its doors, on the eve of the meeting. Cong. Sons of Israel, also in Jersey City, "was sold for pennies on the dollar," he said, and is now a mosque. Cong. Mount Sinai, a traditional Orthodox synagogue in a 100-year-old landmark building in Jersey City Heights where Weiss affiliates (he’s also a member of United Synagogue in Hoboken), is, he said, "hanging on by its fingertips." But Weiss and his spiritual leader, British-born Rabbi Shlomo Marks, see evidence of a turnaround.
For example, within 10 blocks of the shuttered shuls, said Weiss, 15,000 housing units are under construction in a neighborhood with plenty of Hebrew speakers from an influx of Israelis. Marks who emigrated from Israel during the High Holy Days to take over the Mount Sinai pulpit, recently opened the congregation’s first after-school religious school in 30 years and gets several e-mails or phone inquiries a month from prospective members. On Passover, Marks said, a different crowd of at least ‘5 people attended each of the two community seders he led.
A member of the board at Temple Beth-El in North Bergen, David Kronick sees outreach to newly arriving empty-nesters and the large proportion of interfaith couples and families as another key to achieving critical mass that will fuel stability and growth. To get people through the door, as membership chair of his congregation, Kronick arranges recreational and cultural programs that have included yoga and exercise classes, lectures on financial planning and nutrition, and professional theater and dance performances. He’s willing to try anything timely and instructive.
"The fire’s been lit," said Marks. "The only question is, ‘When is it going to turn into a blaze?’"