When Jeffrey Bernstein was growing up, North Bergen was a vibrant Jewish community, boasting three active synagogues and thousands of committed Jews. Then, about 30 years ago, the Jews left. Now, thanks to Bernstein and a handful of fellow congregants at Temple Beth Abraham, the city may be on its way to a Jewish revival.
Five years ago, said Bernstein, "about 10 to 15 of us, the remaining members of the shul, decided that we needed to make a critical decision." Agonizing over "whether there was going to be a future" for Jews in this diverse Hudson County community or if, instead, they would need to sell the synagogue they decided to take a bold step and invite a yeshiva to occupy the synagogue building.
Yeshiva director Rabbi Aron Milstein says "we are using every room" of Temple Beth Abraham, pictured above.
"We thought this might provide the nucleus for a resurgence of the community," said Bernstein, who has lived in North Bergen for 4′ years. "We knew that we couldn’t revive it by moving in one couple at a time. It’s unreasonable to ask a family to be pioneers, without anyone for their children to play with. "
After pitching the idea to several schools, the group entered into negotiations with Mesivta Ohr Naftoli, an accredited Orthodox high school then based in Monsey. The yeshiva set up operations in North Bergen in the spring of ‘005 and will celebrate its first anniversary in Hudson County at a dinner to be held on June 5 at the Teaneck Jewish Center. The invitation to the event heralds it as a "special dinner celebrating Jewish renaissance in North Bergen."
Yeshiva director Rabbi Aron Milstein said the community "welcomed us with open arms" and that "while the facility needs a bit of work, it functions very well." The chapel is now being used as a bet midrash [study hall], and "we are using every room." The yeshiva, now in its 10th year of operation, currently serves 44 students this year’s students hail from Monsey, Passaic, and England but it could accommodate 80, he said.
Milstein noted that the yeshiva hopes to begin a kollel program next fall and that eight couples have already expressed interest in participating. "We would just have to find the money for housing," he said. He is also hopeful that as the yeshiva grows, "the community will build around it."
Rabbi Abraham Zigelman rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Abraham and its spiritual leader for 55 years believes the yeshiva will "invigorate the Jewish population of North Bergen" and calls the relocation of yeshiva staff and teachers to the local area "a boon to the community."
"It’s a great thing," he said. "You can hear the voices of children studying from 6 a.m. to 1′ midnight." And, he pointed out, the school is also attracting post-high-school students, who come to study during night sessions.
Zigelman recalls when Temple Beth Abraham was called "the minyan shul of Hudson County" because "we never missed a minyan." The synagogue, founded in 1949, enjoyed decades where "several hundred youths would be here studying or engaged in other activities."
Zigelman agrees with Bernstein that the decline in North Bergen’s Jewish population had a lot to do with the price of real estate.
"My own view is that when people got married, they couldn’t afford housing here, so they moved to the suburbs, finding cheaper housing in places like Teaneck or Englewood," Bernstein suggested, adding that traditional Jewish organizations also moved out of the town, becoming part of the Bergen County umbrella.
"I still don’t understand why people left," said Zigelman. "North Bergen has the best location, halfway between the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge."
"Our families devoted much of their lives to the community," said Bernstein. "When I go to the synagogue every day and see the memorial plaques, I know that [the yeshiva] is what they would have wanted."
"We need a carefully structured plan to revitalize the community, one step at a time," added Bernstein. "I know it’s going to work. The sacrifice and struggle of previous generations has yet to yield its best fruit."