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Home December 2022 A Visionary Synagogue Continues to Evolve as It Enters Its Second...

A Visionary Synagogue Continues to Evolve as It Enters Its Second Century

A congregational community Passover seder was also attended by soldiers from nearby Fort Hancock and Fort Monmouth.
Photo courtesy of Congregation B’nai Israel

Congregation B’nai Israel’s 100th Anniversary Being Celebrated With Jewish Heritage Museum Exhibit

A vision for a synagogue community began more than a century ago in 1922 when 35 Jewish men met in Red Bank Borough Hall to form a congregation for the growing number of European immigrants.
    Today, those original 40 families who first gathered on the second floor of Kreidel men’s store on the corner of Broad and Front streets became Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) in Rumson, a thriving center of multi-generational Jewish life that has weathered anti-Semitism, the Depression and has become a leader in interfaith relations, women taking leadership roles, support for Israel and working to free Soviet Jewry.
    That commitment to serving a changing Jewish community for 100 years is also the subject of an exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, “B’nai Israel Rumson: Celebrating 100 Years,” which will run through Jan. 15, 2023.

Three generations of the Siers family recently celebrated Simchat Torah at Congregation B’nai Israel. Shown with their two grandsons are Steve, front, whose own father was an early synagogue supporter and the community’s kosher butcher; and, in rear, Anne and son-in-law, Kevin.

    “We wanted to share the story of the founding of this center of Jewish life in eastern Monmouth County,” said museum Executive Director Jessica Solomon. “We showcase the contributions it’s made not only for the Jewish residents of Monmouth County since its founding in 1922. In the ‘20s and ‘30s it helped people through the Great Depression. In the ‘40s it sold war bonds and hosted events for Jewish soldiers where many met their wives. They were active in the fight to save Soviet Jewry and a beloved rabbi, Jack Rosoff, was one of the leaders in 1966 of the Madison Square Garden rally to save Soviet Jewry.”   
    She said other noteworthy initiatives include the summer program it had organized in the late ‘60s for mainly African-American youths in Red Bank, which became the Shore Area Walk for Israel to taking the lead in introducing security initiatives in the modern era. Synagogue Executive Director Tara Siers, who grew up in the congregation was effusive in her feelings for CBI.
 

Women prepare chicken soup in the synagogue kitchen for the Community of Caring, which delivers it to those who are ill or sitting shiva.
Photo courtesy of Congregation B’nai Israel

  “I love it,” she said. “It always felt like a second home. My dad grew up here. I was in the first graduating class of Gan Yeladim pre-school and later went to Hebrew school and Hebrew high school here.”
   Like many other members her family roots are deep in the eastern Monmouth County’s Jewish community. Her grandparents, Charlie and Jenny, were owners of the county’s only kosher butcher shop in Red Bank and were early CBI members and supporters. Her father, Stephen, is a former synagogue president while her mother, Anne, took on many volunteer activities including Sisterhood president. Siers herself served in many capacities before her current position and serves as trustee for synagogue life, helping to plan many synagogue events, including the 100th anniversary celebration held on Oct. 13.
    “We are all just excited to help the synagogue as it enters its second century,” Siers said. “I think the important thing to remember about our synagogue is that we are constantly evolving and reinventing to remain relevant.”
    Al Zager of Fair Haven and his wife, Robin, are co-chairs of the Second Century Campaign at CBI, which has raised almost $1 million toward a $3.6 million goal to provide services and programs. The campaign has two “angels” who have pledged $625,00. The contributions will be incremental with a partial award made each time the congregation raises a million dollars. 
    “It’s been an incredible part of my life,” said Al, whose family joined when he was in high school and who became active in its United Synagogue Youth chapter, went off to college and law school, got married at the synagogue and raised two sons in the congregation.
    The couple has been active for a number of years, serving on or chairing committees and boards. Al served as  “conceptual advisor”  for the recently completed documentary, “100 Years: Past, Present & Future,” produced and directed by Chris Brenner of Navesink Studios. The 30-minute documentary will be shown again at the museum at 2:00 p.m. Dec. 18.  

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped launch Congregation B’nai Israel’s Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal in 1949.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County

    Sigmund Eisner, whose Red Bank uniform factory in 1922 was then the largest such factory in the United States, had many Jewish immigrant workers and became the new congregation’s biggest benefactor, donating $1,000, when almost immediately, it was decided to purchase a dilapidated house at 10 Riverside Drive.
    Mimi Friedman, 97, has been a member of the congregation all her life. Her parents, Michael and Malvina Silberstein, were founders and her father served as synagogue secretary. However, at the time anti-Semitism was an issue so she said “the story goes” the new building was purchased as a private home to conceal its intended purpose.     
    That concern about anti-Semitism also affected her own family. When her father opened his store, he decided to call it the Upholstery Shop and leave his name out because it was “too Jewish and he would not have gotten customers from Rumson and Deal,” said Friedman. He later did begin using his name and today the shop, now known as M. Silberstein Interior Design, is still in the family but has moved to nearby Shrewsbury.
    Despite the anti-Semitism she noted, the Jewish community largely consisted of shop owners and merchants. “When I grew up, it was all Jewish-owned businesses in Red Bank,” said Friedman. “You couldn’t shop on Broad Street on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur because everything was closed.”
 

Congregants leaving the former Red Bank building in 1958 with the Torahs on a three-mile procession to their new home in Rumson.
Photo courtesy of Congregation B’nai Israel

  Soon after its establishment, the synagogue grew rapidly and by 1925 its membership was 100 families. In 1933 a search committee was appointed to find a permanent rabbi, selecting Arthur Hershon, who would serve for 27 years. In the ensuing years CBI would establish what is believed to be the first Jewish Boy Scout troop in New Jersey and a YM-YWHA. Hershon would become a respected leader in the general community for his interfaith outreach. The synagogue would open its Hebrew school to all Jewish children whether their parents were members or not.   
    Hershon was then also chaplain at Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook and Fort Monmouth in Eatontown and the synagogue would often hold religious and social activities for Jewish soldiers, including Passover seders and dances, resulting in more than a few marriages.
    Friedman was among them, meeting her soldier husband, Harry, at a synagogue-sponsored event, 
    “He (Hershon) would take us over as teenagers to dance with the boys at Fort Hancock,” said Friedman. “We did a lot of entertaining of the soldiers.”
    In the post-war years CBI purchased its Red Bank Hebrew Cemetery in what is now Tinton Falls and  became staunch supporters of Israel as its membership grew to 230 families. It hosted former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the kickoff to its women’s division of the United Jewish Appeal.
    As the synagogue continued to grow, its members decided to purchase its current six-acre site in Rumson for $6,000. The first service was held in 1958 on the 10th anniversary of the founding of Israel and membership ballooned to 380.
    In June 1964, Rosoff, who had served as Jewish chaplain at Fort Monmouth, became the new spiritual leader, and is now rabbi emeritus, having retired after 34 years.
    In 1971 the board approved a new youth wing, classrooms, chapel and gymnasium. In 1987 the congregation hired Cantor Marla Barugel, one of the first two female hazzans ordained in the Conservative movement. The current rabbi, Douglas Sagal, was hired in 2019.
    Friedman has nothing but fond memories of the congregation, including mother-daughter parties. She was active in the Sisterhood and credited its women for launching its Hebrew school. She worked as a secretary in the synagogue office and as its executive director for about 10 years.
    Having worked or volunteered in virtually every capacity at B’nai Israel Friedman has watched CBI change and evolve over time.
    “Every generation has come in with new ideas,” she said. “Now it’s catering to a more youthful crowd who are very social activities oriented, which seems to be generating attendance. People come more now as a family and it has become more family oriented.” 
    To view the documentary go to
https://www.destinationspast.com. 

Debra Rubin is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

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