Bergen County is rich in Jewish life. It is so rich, in fact, that at times we do not have the chance to look past its borders.
This week, though, we look west to Paterson, in Passaic County, and south, to Hoboken, in Hudson County. As we do so, we also think a little bit about the history of Jews in this state.
To the rest of the world, American Jewish history began on the Lower East Side and radiated out from there. Yes, Philip Roth’s novels taught us that Newark had its own proudly distinct history – it centered around Weequahic, a word that non-natives are challenged to spell, much less to pronounce – but few outsiders know that Paterson, too, was a separate community, and so were the river towns on the Hudson’s left bank, Hoboken and Jersey City. They lived in the shadow of New York, but they were the center of their own Jewish worlds.
Paterson and Hoboken (and Jersey City too) are going in different directions now. Jews started flowing out of Paterson soon after World War II, when the magnetic benefits of the GI Bill and allure of a nice clean new home in the suburbs, complete with green lawn and white picket fence, drew them as if they were iron filings. The city they left behind continued to be the home for new immigrants, for people on the first leg of their climb from poverty. It did not appeal to the Jews who were able to afford to do better.
Most of the Jews still in Paterson now are elderly, if not actively old, and most – certainly not all, but most – live there because they cannot afford to move. There does not seem to be much of a future for the community there. That’s why we are so heartened to hear about the minyan we write about on page 10, and so glad to know that younger people from Bergen County are working to ensure that it keeps going.
For a long time,Hudson County towns were enmeshed in corruption and scandal, and they were irrepressibly urban. Jews left as soon as they could. For decades now, young people, including young Jews, have lived there right after college, only to move to the suburbs as soon as they found partners, had children, and could afford mortgages.
Now, though, Hoboken and Jersey City are retaining more young people, boasting more young families, to educating more children. As we write on page 28, United Synagogue of Hoboken’s building is celebrating its centennial. The shul is flourishing, and the community is growing. It’s exciting.
There is vibrant Jewish life in northern New Jersey outside the borders of Bergen County. We’re glad to be able to report on it.