This week, the Hudson Jewish Community Forum went from being a "bunch of do-gooders to a bunch of do-gooders with a bank account," said Jersey City resident Adam Weiss, chairman of the new group and a major force behind its creation.
"We’ve struck such a responsive chord in the community that it seemed appropriate to continue with a more formal structure," said Weiss, who first pulled together disparate elements of the Hudson community in April to explore the idea of working together to revive local Jewish life. "It was just a dream then," he said of the forum, HudsonJewish, which incorporated on Dec. 1′ and held a formal signing ceremony on Sunday at Temple Beth-El of North Bergen.
Weiss, whose initial meeting brought together 30 local rabbis and synagogue presidents, said that for the most part, the people he gathered "looked around and didn’t know each other. That was an unacceptable state of affairs."
"HudsonJewish is the culmination of eight months of effort by community activists who realized that issues like synagogue membership, community finance, and the lack of a Jewish day school affect everyone," said Dr. Neil Davis of Jersey City, a trustee. "We created HudsonJewish as a medium to address these issues cooperatively."
Hudson County, which four decades ago was home to nearly 40,000 Jews and the original home of The Jewish Standard spans the area from North Bergen, on the north, to Bayonne, on the south, and embraces the cities of Hoboken, Bayonne, Jersey City, Union City, Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York, North Bergen, Secaucus, and Kearny.
"We also include Ahavas Shalom of Newark," said Weiss, noting that the community there "has a lot in common with the urban communities of Hudson County."
While Weiss said there has been no current census, he thinks there are now between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews and 10 functioning synagogues in the county, in addition to numerous minyans. Hudson also houses chapters of Hadassah (of which he is a life member) and the National Council of Jewish Women.
The big challenge for the synagogues, said Weiss, is that "four or five may be in jeopardy of closing within 18 to ‘4 months. The average age of their members is above 80," he said, and some are down to about two dozen members. "Some will run out of people, and some out of money."
Weiss pointed out, however, that there has been a "massive, rapid influx of younger Jews," beginning in Hoboken in the 1980s. "Hoboken is almost as expensive as Manhattan now," he said, noting that young Jews are increasingly settling in Jersey City downtown, in the Journal Square area, and in Jersey City Heights, where Weiss lives as well as in the waterfront communities in north Hudson.
"All of these communities hope to be the next Hoboken," he said, "areas in deep disfavor economically that will be revived. It’s a redevelopment success story," he added, describing the growth of the area with more than 10,000 housing units now under construction in downtown Jersey City as "a renaissance not seen elsewhere in New Jersey."
Explaining that the longtime residents of the area have "experienced nothing but erosion of the community," he likened the influx of young Jews to "the cavalry coming over the hill." In April, he said, "it was a beleaguered community planning its own demise. They were unaware of these demographic changes."
Now, he said, with programs such as HudsonJewish Hanukkah on the Hudson which last week drew more than 300 people to the Jewish Community Center in Bayonne for a candle-lighting ceremony, dancing, and the music of a klezmer band "many of these residents were flabbergasted, astonished, to see 50 children," said Weiss, who, when he’s not living, breathing, and planning for the revitalization of Hudson County, is an executive recruiter. "They had been saying, ‘What are you talking about? There are no new Jews.’"
Weiss said the forum will build on the success of this event, planning other holiday celebrations and activities. But most important, he said, is "to get people to think of this as a community, to discover a sense of Hudson County identity transcending individual synagogues and neighborhoods."
The biggest challenge of the forum, which will meet bimonthly in different locations, is to "get people to understand that their decisions affect the entire community," he said.
"Synagogues can’t just decide that no one is coming and then close," he stressed, pointing out that in May, one synagogue, Agudath Sholom in Jersey City, had "closed its doors and sold its building without anywhere near the level of discussion which would have accompanied a synagogue closure in any other community. That can’t recur."
During ‘007, the forum undertook several initiatives, such as building an all-community Website at www.hudsonjewish.org and publishing a map of all local synagogues for the High Holidays. The organization is also promoting the re-establishment of a Jewish day school in Hudson County, which has been without one since closure of the Union City yeshiva in 1986, said Weiss, pointing out that Raylie Dunkel, a HudsonJewish trustee, is facilitating that discussion, together with Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of United Synagogue of Hoboken.
Weiss noted that the "brain drain of the most Jewishly committed families" has been a major problem for the county, where there are not many Jewish educational options for children over the age of 5. "A Jewish day school will make it possible for families to remain here," he said.
Another challenge, he said, is that "the baby boom generation is missing," with virtually no Jews between the ages of 35 and 75 to fill leadership roles in the community. As a result, he said, Jews older than 75 are being asked to "hang on longer," while younger Jews, already busy with growing families and cultivating careers, must assume leadership roles earlier than they planned.
The next HudsonJewish forum will meet on Feb. 7 at Cong. B’nai Jacob in Jersey City. For more information, e-mail Info@HudsonJewish.org