There was dancing in the streets of North Bergen last month, in celebration of the completion of a new sefer Torah the likes of which hadn’t been seen here for a good 40 years.
Rabbi Aron Milstein, dean of Mesivta Ohr Naftoli, and students escort the new Torah to its home.
Rabbi Aron Milstein, rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Ohr Naftoli, noted at a dinner following a dedication of the handwritten scroll commissioned more than a year ago by the Monsey family of the late Reb Yitzchok Ben Reb Dov Neuman, that "the Torah scroll represents just another development toward the rebirth of North Bergen as a community with vibrant Jewish life."
The ceremony took place at the home of Jeffrey Bernstein, 50, a Newark attorney who grew up and still lives in this township of 59,000 now largely Hispanic residents.
Bernstein was among those instrumental in attracting Mesivta Ohr Naftoli to North Bergen from Monsey two years ago, when the school was searching for a residential campus. Its supporters are banking on its presence here to serve as a catalyst to attract the next generation of Jewish families to populate the neighborhood surrounding Temple Beth Abraham, and in the process revitalize the synagogue. The Orthodox congregation is now home to the yeshiva, which, by all accounts, is thriving since its move in the fall of ‘005 to the affluent western sector of North Bergen, near Hudson County Park. Sixty-five high school and post-secondary school students live in a dormitory across the street, up from 46 a year ago. The yeshiva is close to acquiring a second dorm to house an anticipated increase in students and faculty members.
Yaakov Weintraub, like Bernstein a 50-year-old lifelong North Bergen resident, described a similar community cycle in his family’s Conservative synagogue. Temple Beth-El, Beth Abraham’s neighbor to the south of Hudson County Park, near Tony Boulevard East, once boasted a roster of 400 to 500 families. Membership has dwindled to 60 to 70 households, said Weintraub, who runs a computer consulting business from his home.
The Jewish community was at its peak in the 1970s and ’80s, according to Beth Abraham’s longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Emeritus Abraham I. Zigelman, who arrived in 1951 and retired in 1995. Zigelman recalled, "We had youth groups of all ages, beginning with a nursery school, which I started. We had a large Talmud Torah, which met every single day, preparing children from 8 years old for bar and bat mitzvah."
The congregation grew so large, said Zigelman, that it outgrew its space. A building fund started in 1967 paid for the extension, completed in 1969. "It was ‘standing room only’ at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services."
As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, young families were unable to afford what had become pricey local real estate along the so-called Gold Coast of Hudson County. These baby-boomers migrated to the suburbs of Bergen and Passaic counties, where Englewood, Teaneck, Wayne, and Fair Lawn became favored destinations.
When they departed, they took material assets with them. Beth Abraham gave away the Torah scrolls and kosher dishes it no longer needed to fledgling Bergen and Passaic County congregations, said Zigelman.
As baby-boomers retire and as their children reach adulthood, Zigelman and others hope that North Bergen and surrounding Hudson County towns, with an easy commute to Manhattan and waterfront views of the city will be able to lure them back. Whether it will be possible to revitalize Jewish life here is a question that may well take another generation to answer. Certainly, there are obstacles, and even those with high hopes are cautiously optimistic.
With differing concerns, the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues are taking different tactics.
Said Bernstein of his Orthodox community: "North Bergen could not be rebuilt one family at a time, because it’s unrealistic for families to move in without children and adults to socialize with. The only way to rebuild community is to provide a nucleus around which you can build a communal foundation, such as an educational institution, which, hopefully, will draw rabbis who are involved in the school who will want to live nearby."
With real estate expensive, the yeshiva’s faculty members have so far not relocated to the neighborhood, but continue to commute from other parts of the metropolitan area. Milstein, the dean, is the only one who lives locally, with his wife and children. Their home is a locus of activity, particularly on Shabbat, when they entertain the students and community members for lunch.
Thus, Milstein and the leadership of Beth Abraham have collaborated on a strategic plan for community development that rests largely on the continued growth of the yeshiva and the financial backing it has secured from parents of students and other Monsey residents and Beth Abraham’s current and former congregants, emotionally invested in the survival of their shul.
Bernstein returned to worship at Beth Abraham, he said, after the shteibel he attended, Tzemach Dovid, closed its doors in the early 1990s. What he found were 10 to 15 men struggling to make a minyan on Shabbat, a far cry from the hundreds of regulars he recalled.
At least, said Bernstein, once the yeshiva moved in, making a minyan is no longer problematic. "Now on Shabbat, community members participate in worship and meals with school students. There’s a tremendous bond between the school and the community," he said, adding of the students, "they are not just guests. They are our future generation of North Bergenites."
To keep them in town once they graduate from either the yeshiva’s high school or complete their studies at the school’s post-graduate bet midrash, community leaders envision establishing a kollel, a talmudical academy in which young married men study, their living expenses subsidized by the community. The synagogue would then have a chance to regain its stature as the bustling community center it once was for families, said Zigelman, who remains involved as an adviser to the yeshiva, "helping guide it in its growth," he said.
And if that "results in a kosher pizza shop, who can complain?" asked Yisroel Cohen, 54, one of the recent arrivals who davens at Beth Abraham. Looking for an Orthodox shul with an Ashkenazic minyan, Cohen said he likes the warmth the yeshiva students bring. "These are wonderful boys," he said.
Beth-El’s strategy, on the other hand, is to reach out to the unaffiliated, one by one, counting on slow but steady growth. Weintraub, who this year rejoined the board of Beth-El, said he and others have noticed a Jewish presence among the young professionals and empty-nesters moving to North Bergen in search of more affordable housing in comparison to rents and coop prices on the popular Upper West Side and in Hoboken.
In the more desirable sections of town, single family homes average $300,000 to $700,000 and multiple-family dwellings run anywhere from $450,000 to $650,000, said Len Turi, who has been selling real estate in North Bergen for 30 years. He agreed that there has been what he called "gentrification" of some neighborhoods within the past few years, although he could not say whether particular ethnic or religious groups were dominant.
Weintraub is also part of a grassroots group working to revitalize Jewish life throughout Hudson County. The work of that group, HudsonJewish.com, spearheaded by community activist Adam Weiss of Jersey City, was highlighted in The Jewish Standard in April. A meeting to discuss a community calendar, programming initiatives and ways to raise awareness of Jewish resources among new residents of the county was scheduled for last night at the Bayonne Jewish Community Center.
Many of the recent transplants to the area, said Weintraub, may not yet have found reason to join a synagogue. "There’s a lot of opportunity for making the synagogue a community that’s more dynamic and growing," Weintraub contended, citing as evidence Beth-El’s launch of a Sunday school this year, with a handful of children enrolled and that now between a third and a half of the regulars he sees at services are new, younger members. Still, he acknowledged, "the growth is slow, and we need to do more outreach to let people know we’re here. We have to work harder to bring them in."