Remembering Jersey City

Remembering Jersey City

Rabbi Emeritus Kenneth Brickman talks about the city he served for two decades

Temple Beth-El’s Rabbi Debra Hachen leads children at a recent tot Shabbat celebration.

“It might be hard to believe it now, but in Jersey City’s heyday, it resembled Teaneck today,” Rabbi Kenneth Brickman said.

Rabbi Brickman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El, retired from that Jersey City pulpit in 2011 after 22 years. He remembers both the city he knew and the one his older congregants described to him.

“When I arrived there, in 1989, there were many senior citizens in my congregation who were born and bred there, and who regaled me with stories about what it had been like,” he said. “They used to talk about the number of synagogues, kosher delis, kosher butchers, kosher bakeries, and a yeshiva, the Yeshiva of Hudson County. You could live a full Jewish life there.”

In fact, this newspaper, the Jewish Standard, began in Jersey City.

It was not exactly like Newark or Paterson, cities with insular Jewish communities whose first generations headed straight off the boat from Europe, not stopping first on the Lower East Side, the Bronx, or Brooklyn, and not commuting to jobs in Manhattan. At least by the time Rabbi Brickman got there, many of his older congregants had geographically mixed marriages.

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman

“Many of the born-and-bred families did come straight from Ellis Island,” he said. “If you look at a map, you’ll see that Ellis Island actually is closer to New Jersey than it is to New York. But a lot of the people from Jersey City went to New York to work, and brought back New York City Jews, who joined them in Jersey City. I had a lot of married couples with one of them born and bred in Jersey City and the other in New York.”

The local JCC shut down just before he arrived, Rabbi Brickman said, but it had been legendary. “It was the home of people like Jerry Herman, who wrote ‘Hello Dolly,’ and Phyllis Newman, as well as others whose names aren’t as immediately recognizable,” he said. (Phyllis Newman is the Tony-winning actress and singer who was married to the lyricist and playwright Adolph Green, and Jerry Herman’s other work includes “Mame” and “Milk and Honey.”) The JCC had a vibrant theater program, Rabbi Brickman added.

The JCC was central to the community. “People tell me that if you were a young Jew in Jersey City and you weren’t at home, your parents knew that you were at the JCC,” he said.

It was a city of neighborhoods, he added. “When I spoke to my older members, they would say that they lived not in Jersey City but in the Heights or Journal Square or downtown. In its heyday, my congregation primarily drew people from those neighborhoods; it was rare for people from other ones to want a Reform shul.” Now, it is the only Reform synagogue in Hudson County.

The Jewish community – and the rest of Jersey City – flowered immediately after World War II, although it can be traced back far past that. “I was told that its decline began immediately after the Newark riots, in 1967,” Rabbi Brickman said. “Large numbers of Jews moved to the suburbs then. The riots didn’t affect Jersey City directly, but it was too close for comfort.

“When I arrived, it wasn’t a ghost town. There was a group of mainly older people. I used to joke that my youth group president was 80. The bulk of the congregation were senior citizens, but they had stuck with the community, unlike their friends, who had escaped to Short Hills or Maplewood. They were people of means, who could have followed their neighbors out to the suburbs but chose to stay.

“They really wanted to see a revival, and many of them were fortunate enough to be able to be there for at least the beginning of it.

“The revival began in the late 1980s, and it has been slow but steady,” Rabbi Brickman said. “We had no Sunday school or Hebrew school then, but we began a nursery school.

“Those kids, from the nursery school, are in graduate school now. Many of those families stayed. Some of them had moved to Jersey City because of its proximity to Manhattan, and as Manhattan became more and more expensive Jersey City became a more viable option.”

Why does Jersey City’s neighbor, Hoboken, get credit for a revival, while Jersey City does not? “Hoboken is a different world,” Rabbi Brickman said. “The revival there came earlier. And also, remember, Hoboken is a much smaller area. It is just a square mile.” Jersey City, on the other hand, is the state’s second largest city, trailing only Newark; the 2010 census showed its population as 247,597. “Jersey City is a big city,” Rabbi Brickman said. “It will take time.”

Right now, the city has only three shuls – Rabbi Brickman’s Beth El and two small Orthodox synagogues, one in Journal Square and the other in Jersey City Heights.

“We used to have a reunion for Jersey City Jews in Florida,” he added. “They came in droves. The enthusiasm in their voices showed how unique that community was. That’s why so many of them stuck it out.

“There certainly is hope for the Jewish community in Jersey City,” he concluded. “I think that with time will come the rejuvenation of Jewish institutions there.”

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