We were like a family. This is where so many of us got our foundation for life," says Jane Canter, one of three co-presidents of Cong. B’nai Jacob in Jersey City. The once-thriving congregation is asking for support from former members who have spread to Bergen, Passaic, and Essex counties and beyond. Now serving only about 75 members, the Conservative synagogue is fiscally strapped and needs an infusion of funds because of its shrinking membership.
Cong. B’nai Jacob was once one of numerous synagogues in Jersey City, which had a vibrant Jewish population. Founded in 1959 by eight families, the congregation built its own building, which was dedicated in 1963 and boasted 300 to 400 families at its height. One of those families was that of The Jewish Standard’s publisher, Jamie Janoff, and his sister, Beth Janoff Chananie, whose parents were charter members and whose childhood house stood just behind the synagogue’s parking lot.
The sanctuary at B’nai Jacob PHOTO BY DEAN BRODY
"It was beautiful, very large, very modern, and all my friends went there," says Chananie. "Everybody would walk to Hebrew school together after school, stopping on the way at Ted & Ben’s Deli, which had great pickles, or Lolly’s candy store for a quick pinball game. There were tremendous numbers of kids." She also remembers the "huge Purim carnivals, with great prizes, and the huge sukkah in the parking lot."
Her brother concurs. "It was the center of life, of everything social," according to Janoff. "I had my bar mitzvah there. We played stickball in the parking lot." The Janoffs moved to Bergen County in the early ’70s, when the neighborhoods in Jersey City began changing. Much of the rest of the Jewish population fled to more suburban areas and school systems during the ensuing decades as well.
Dean Brody, 50, lives in Cresskill now, but returns with his wife, Deborah, to B’nai Jacob for holiday services. Brody, whose parents and grandparents were all members, credits the synagogue for giving his generation roots. "It was a large community with people who liked each other very much," he told the Standard. "We were a really tight group, even though there were 400 members. At times there were 50 kids in a Hebrew class."
Brody feels that if people would come back to visit the shul, they’d be moved to offer financial support, which would help to ensure the synagogue’s future. "I want to protect the temple for the members whom it now serves. It’s the center of life for them. And Jersey City is reviving, so we’re starting to attract younger members." Brody is also trying to assemble a database of former members and asks that people with information email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cong. B’nai Jacob is part of a consortium of Hudson County Jewish institutions promoting their presence in the area. "Jersey City is in the midst of a huge building boom and not only has a lot of young people who work in New York, but a big number of empty-nesters, too," according to co-president Canter. "People who are looking for a community couldn’t do better than our shul. New people are really welcomed here. Everybody says the same thing: they’ve never been to a synagogue where there is so much warmth. Nobody puts on airs here or is fancy; they just come for camaraderie and Judaism."
The synagogue is served by Cantor Marsha Dubrow. "She makes services informative and understandable," according to Canter. "She explains things as we go along, so that people who come to services and are not very knowledgeable can understand what’s happening.
"This congregation really fulfills a true need for its members a place they can come to for their religious needs, but also at a time of family crisis or celebration. A lot of members are older and their children have moved to other areas of the country. This is their family."
B’nai Jacob’s leadership is also looking to rent out its building for other uses. "It would be perfect for a senior daycare center, or a religious school, or a children’s preschool," says Canter. "It’s a shame for the building not to be used."