Can you imagine? Hundreds of people sat in those seats, the men here and the women upstairs," said Ann Blaustein, the de facto historian of Cong. Mount Sinai in Jersey City as she looked at 30 rows of empty seats from the bimah in the synagogue’s second-floor sanctuary.
The sentence that is supposed to follow, "and look at it now," doesn’t come. Instead, she sighs and goes over to check a window ledge that has been damaged severely by a water leak.
Fa?ade of Cong. Mount Sinai. The building, crested by two Moorish onion-shaped copper cupolas, was designed by architect Eugene Ciccarelli in the Romanesque style. Photos by Daniel Santacruz
The "now" of the synagogue is not what it used to be: a thriving congregation in the Heights section of Jersey City founded by Jewish immigrants from several European countries that, at its peak in the 1950s, had a membership of about 500 families. Today, only 14 to 15 men and 10 to 1′ women come to Shabbat morning services, said Blaustein. There are no services the rest of the week.
The Sherman Avenue Talmud Torah, which housed a school and a synagogue, closed down in the 1980s after 95 years, and the two congregations merged. Some ’00 former congregants who moved out of the area are still considered members and send in donations.
"They haven’t forgotten us," said Blaustein.
Mount Sinai is having a concert and a dinner on June 15 to celebrate its 10’nd year as the oldest functioning Orthodox congregation in Jersey City. As part of the commemoration, it is looking for descendants of the founding members and alumni of the Talmud Torah, who will be honored that day. According to Jane Goldberg, co-president of the synagogue, some 30 people have replied so far.
Most synagogues honor living members who have done something worthy, but "we are honoring those who founded the shul through their descendants because without them, we wouldn’t have it," said Arthur Goldberg, the other co-president.
"Mount Sinai is a microcosm of Hudson County," said Adam Weiss, a member of the synagogue and chairman of the board of trustees of the Hudson Jewish Community Forum, a non-profit corporation known as HudsonJewish.
Mount Sinai member Ann Blaustein holds up a photograph of the ‘0th jubilee banquet of the synagogue, held on Jan. 16, 19’7. Photo by Daniel Santacruz
"If you are Jewish and live in Hudson county, it’s likely you are over 80 years old or under 40," said Weiss, who "discovered" Mount Sinai in ‘005 when he moved from Hoboken. Like many synagogues in the county, Mount Sinai was "completely invisible to newcomers," he said.
The real challenge for this and other older synagogues in the county, according to Weiss, is to market themselves better to attract younger members.
Mount Sinai is "an absolute jewel of a synagogue with a magnificent past that has been maintained by a small but dedicated group of older people, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s discovered by enough [people] who can make it thrive for the next 100 years," he said.
Blaustein sees herself as the synagogue historian because "there is nobody else left," she said smiling. "I started out being the youngest and now I’m the oldest."
Born in 19’7 in Nassau, N.Y., a farming town near Albany, Blaustein married Jersey City-born Mordechai "Muttsie" Blaustein, owner of Muttsie Upholstery, at the synagogue in 1951. The Blausteins have three children, all of whom attended the Talmud Torah and were active in the synagogue.
According to Blaustein, on Oct. 17, 1906, 43 men met at 371 Central Ave. and decided to create a synagogue. At the meeting, $10.50 for "initiation fees" was collected from each person. The first contribution to the building fund came some time later from the Jersey City Sick Benefit Association.
In 1907 the congregation purchased land at 1’8 Sherman Ave., its present location. In June of that year, 53 seats in the soon-to-be-built synagogue were auctioned off at prices that ranged from $50 to $1,000. A cornerstone for the building was laid in September 1908.
Blaustein still remembers many of the congregants whose names appear on several plaques on the two floors of the synagogue. Some stand out in her memory for their generosity. Others like Joseph and Sophie Novick and the Sinakin family because of the hours they devoted to the congregation and the Talmud Torah. Some she recalls because of their fundraising abilities, like Sarah Fellerman, who "taught us how to raise and give money," Blaustein said. Fellerman was the daughter of Bella Pesin and sister of Meyer and Morris Pesin. The last, who died in 1999 at 89, was editor emeritus of this newspaper.
She also remembers the women who walked down the streets of the neighborhood with collection boxes asking for donations for the synagogue’s journal dinner. And the ones who cooked for special occasions because there were no caterers.
The members, she said, were involved in each other’s lives, but "in a nice way. We celebrated together, we cried together."
Currently, Shabbat services are held in the first-floor sanctuary and conducted by Rabbi Shlomo Marks, who lives next door in a house owned by the synagogue. The second-floor sanctuary is reserved for the High Holidays.
Blaustein is concerned about needed repairs, chief among them the leak from the roof, which has taken its toll on the walls and inside the ark. Other repairs can wait, she said, like the missing light bulb, or the clock above the entrance to the sanctuary, stopped at 8:30. For now, she worries about the cleanup on the second floor, where the June 15 concert will be held.
Blaustein and Weiss are optimistic about the future.
"We’ll hang on and we’ll keep it going because young people are moving in," said Blaustein. "We stayed through the toughest time."
She expects that the synagogue will be declared a landmark, which means it can receive funds from the state.
Weiss, on the other hand, considers that the Friday night dinners, which didn’t exist a year ago, and the Saturday morning services, are a good sign.
"That’s progress," he said.
Tickets for the concert, dinner, and dessert are $54. Tickets for the concert only are $36. Payment can be made by check or through Paypal at the synagogue’s Website, www.mtsinai.net, or at the door. Angela Oren, a Rumanian artist, will perform Israeli music with her band and a synagogue member, John Alvarado.
The synagogue is looking for the following families, descendants of the founding members: Blaustein, Brauer, Bresnick, Chasick, Chenkin, Chester, Gewant, Gutmann, Fellerman, Fishman, Geiger, Hauptman, Halprin, Helfand, Hordes, Kahnowitz, Kanor, Landy, Marcus, Miller, Novick, Passman, Pesin, Pepper, Pomerantz, Samuelson, Schlossberg, Slurzberg, Sinakin, Sklower, Shneweiss, Sunshine, Urdang, Winograd, Yasmer, Zall and Zeller.
But "the list is by no means complete," said Jane Goldberg, Mount Sinai co-president. E-mail her at email@example.com or call her at (’01) 434-66’9.