Jersey City shul marks 50th anniversary

Jersey City shul marks 50th anniversary

Students and leaders of the religious school are shown as they prepared for graduation in 1970. Bottom row, from left, Mara Weinike, Beth Janoff (The Jewish Standard’s community editor), Jill Rabbino, Norma Bresnick, Jane Jacobs, Sherrie Levine, and Tobi Fineberg. Second row, Mrs. Esther Gordon, teacher, Alayne Smith, Ivy Mazur, Rina Saltzman, Lori Ehrlich, and Janet Schultz. Top row, Rabbi Samuel Smerling, Leonard Carlin, Michael Brodie, Arthur Brand, Steven Flashenberg, Cantor Marshall Wise, David Siegelman, Michael Rubin, Scott Goler, and Dr. David M. Parish, principal. Not shown, Dean Brody.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Cong. B’nai Jacob’s gleaming new synagogue was dedicated during Friday night services. Nearly 50 years later – on Nov. 22, 2008 – the shul will commemorate the event with a gala dinner dance.

The synagogue – located at 176 West Side Avenue in Jersey City – has invited a wide range of groups to help it celebrate, including current and former members of the congregation, alumni of the Hebrew school, and friends of the congregation, both within the community and from surrounding areas.

The commemorative weekend kicks off at 8 p.m. on Nov. 21, with Friday Night Live! services led by Cantor Marsha Dubrow, religious leader of the shul, followed by an Oneg Shabbat. The celebration continues Saturday morning with Shabbat services at 9 a.m. and Kiddush at noon. At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night, the dining, dancing, and singing begin.

Ground-breaking ceremonies at Fulton St. and West Side Ave.

Cong. B’nai Jacob traveled from church to house to school before constructing its current home on West Side Ave. Founded in the late 1950s by eight Jersey City families who came together under the chairmanship of Alan Beer, the Conservative congregation’s first services were held at the Bethany Lutheran Church in 1960. Not long afterwards, the group purchased an abandoned house on West Side Ave. and engaged Rabbi Howard Hersch as its first spiritual leader.

Soon – the old house bursting with at least 100 families – the synagogue had to rent the auditorium of a public school to accommodate the over 500 attendees at High Holy Day services. In the meantime, the synagogue’s Hebrew school was expanding, making the need for a larger, permanent space even more critical.

After purchasing a plot of land at Fulton and West Side Aves. at a city auction, the congregation drew up plans for construction.

For Cantor Dubrow – the first woman to become a bat mitzvah under Rabbi Theodore Friedman, the main speaker at the original 1963 dedication ceremony – the shul’s 50th-anniversary celebration is a way of “coming full circle.”

“It’s rather amazing – beshert, as we say in Judaism – that Rabbi Friedman, my rabbi growing up, was the officiator 50 years ago at the dedication of Cong. B’nai Jacob, the congregation I am blessed to serve today,” she said.

Cantor Dubrow, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and is an award-winning composer and educator, has introduced a monthly Friday Night Live! service, complete with musical instruments. In October 2008, at the “Culture in Context” exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, she presented a program of Jewish sacred and secular music and led an interactive lecture on the festival of Sukkot.

While Cong. B’nai Jacob has welcomed many rabbis in the past, it currently boasts a cantor as its spiritual leader. Although Dubrow is not an ordained rabbi, her dual position with the congregation is more common than one might expect.

“People don’t realize that in Europe, [in] many places, rabbis were not the leaders of congregations,” she explained. “Cantors were the leaders of congregations. Rabbis had courts. They would occasionally go around to synagogues, but they didn’t have regular synagogue posts. In the 21st century, we have an opportunity now to simply uphold an ancient, older tradition of a congregation being led by cantors who are empowering their congregants to have bimah skills and conduct services.”

According to Dubrow, Cong. B’nai Jacob represents the changing face of the urban Jewish community in Hudson County.

“Jersey City was once a thriving Jewish community,” she said, “and then during the late 70s or thereabouts, there was a definite move from the urban environment out to the suburbs. Now we are witnessing a return of the empty-nesters from the suburbs. There is a resurgence of Jewish life in Jersey City,” she said, noting that younger Jews are also moving in from Manhattan.

The 50th-anniversary gala is not only a celebration of Hudson County Judaism in its own right but also a chance for those who left the Jersey City area to return and find that the community is still thriving, said Dubrow.

“It would be interesting [for them] to come back and reconnect to their past,” she observed, “to see what is happening in the present and the possibilities of the future.”

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