Two century-old synagogues continue to evolve
Two Monmouth County synagogues, each serving their congregants for more than a century, are evolving. Interestingly, both are, in different ways, returning to their roots.
In 1896, Orthodox members of Long Branch’s then-vibrant Jewish community built an imposing, multi-story building, noted in contemporary accounts for “architecture of the vernacular/eclectic interpretation of the Romanesque Revival style.” It stood at 85 Second Ave., just off the lower end of the town’s major thoroughfare, Broadway, and close to the famed Jersey Shore. The founders named it Congregation Brothers of Israel.
With time came changes in demographics. Lower Broadway was no longer the center of the community. Their members had moved away from the Jersey Shore, looking for affordable homes with backyards. The Second Avenue building was sold, and they built again, in 1970s, at 250 Park Ave., almost 2 miles away from the original building. It was in a more inland section of Long Branch, and was surrounded by homes filled with families happy to have an Orthodox house of worship in their midst.
Meanwhile, in Western Monmouth County in 1917, an Orthodox synagogue was founded in Englishtown, another area with a once-thriving town center. Named Congregation Sons of Israel, it, too, moved as the demographics of the area changed, landing in the 1960s at 33 Gordons Corner Road, Manalapan, a newly developed area where it was surrounded by homes with nice lawns.
Now both synagogues are evolving again in response to the needs of their communities.
For Congregation Brothers of Israel, the change has been gradual.
“We knew the Shore community was growing,” said synagogue President Gerald M. Ostrov. “Initially, it was because of an influx of people interested in spending the summer at the Shore and taking advantage of the large number of new condominiums near the Pier Village complex. Our Park Avenue location was between a mile and a half and 2 miles from them, too far for many to walk to in the summer heat. So, about 20 years ago, we rented an apartment in one of the condos, and set up a weekend shul.
“Over time, the summer people began returning on the weekends during the winter,” he continued. “Some moved to the Shore full time. And many of the older members of our synagogue had moved from their homes near the Park Avenue location to condominiums near the beach. As the number of people worshipping in the apartment congregation grew, we added apartments—first a second and then a third until it became clear that we really needed more space. It was time for us to make a change.”
So they bought a second property, at 38 Sternberger Ave., very close to the popular Shore-area condominiums, and built a second shul.
“Making the decision to build the second shul was a financial gamble,” said Rabbi Nasanayl Braun, who has been spiritually leading Brothers of Israel since 2005. “We were in the midst of COVID, which made it difficult to meet with people for fundraising.
“But we had faith in our congregation,” he said. “They are really good people—kind, considerate people who really care about the shul. Because of them, our dreams have come true.”
He described the satellite location, which officially opened on Memorial Day 2022, as “beautiful and welcoming. We have space for about 275 daveners, plus space for children, and for kiddushes. And now we are thinking we really could have made it bigger.”
The Rabbi, who emphasized that they are committed to maintaining both locations, goes back and forth between them all year. Longtime Brothers of Israel member Barbara Sharon credits the synagogue’s growth to Rabbi Braun, whom she described as “the glue that holds it all together.”
She is thrilled with the synagogue’s progression, adding “Our synagogue friends are our family. Our kids grew up together and our parents were friends. Now many of our friends are retiring, as we have. And we all are moving into the condos along the Shore. The Park Avenue location is a bit too far to walk to every Shabbat. So we love having the new building right in our neighborhood.”
She added, “It’s ironic that we once had a building across from what is now Pier Village. Our new building is really close to the original location.”
She also pointed out that Rabbi David Sher, who serves as summer rabbi of the satellite location, grew up in Long Branch and attended Brothers of Israel with his family. Now married with two children of his own, he is a professor at the Frish School in Paramus.
David Sharon, who is as enthusiastic about Congregation Brothers of Israel as his wife, raised a philosophical point. “One can ask why certain areas with Orthodox populations explode as the Shore area has,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of things. They include a charismatic rabbi, easy access to Kosher food, and an enriching environment. We have that.
“And it’s not just our shul. All are thriving. That’s why I think the Shore area has become a sort of destination for Orthodox Jews.”
As Congregation Brothers of Israel was opening its second building, a very different return to roots was taking place at Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan.
“In the ’60s, we became what some felt was more ‘modern,’” he said. “We still davened in the Orthodox manner. But we eliminated the mechitzah, the partition separating men from women, except on special occasions when a family requested it.“
Recently, however, synagogue member Bonnie Leff said, “We realized we were not growing. So, we formed a Strategic Planning Committee, and discovered what we already knew: While the older members liked to sit with their spouses, we had lost members who wanted a mechitzah, and since we didn’t have a nursery, we were not attracting young members. Clearly, changes needed to be made.”
Fields explained, “We held a congregational meeting, and polled the membership. They overwhelmingly voted to restore the mechitzah. So, on March 7 of last year, it was reinstalled.”
Facing the imminent retirement of their long-time spiritual leader, Rabbi Robert Pilavin, they also began a search for a new rabbi, which concluded with the hiring of Rabbi Kenneth Brodkin.
What drew Rabbi Brodkin and his wife, Avriel, who have seven children, to move from Portland, Oregon, where they were well entrenched in the Jewish community?
“We’d been looking to move to the East coast,” Rabbi Brodkin said. “My parents are here, as well as our married daughter and our new grandchild. And we were interested in rebuilding another strong Jewish community.
“The membership has been wonderfully responsive. The building has been buzzing with new programs, especially the terrific Hanukkah event.”
Rabbi Brodkin has also been involved in the synagogue’s rebranding, including a name change, unveiled to the synagogue membership on Feb. 12. To the rabbi, the motivation for this last step was obvious.
“The name Sons of Israel was clearly not inclusive of women,” he said. “And today, it’s important to communicate clearly. So we are updating our name to Congregation B’nai Israel.” The name is complemented by the new tagline, “The Orthodox Synagogue for All Jews.”
The new logo features a pomegranate, which the rabbi explained is one of the seven species of the land of Israel. “The Talmud teaches that just as the pomegranate is filled with seeds, so is every Jew filled with mitzvot.”
Joel Krinsky, whose children grew up in the synagogue, admits he is not thrilled with the mechitza. “I’d really rather sit next to my wife,” he said. “But I do focus on prayer more now. And I’m completely on board with the shul’s new direction. It’s nice to see kids around the shul again.”
Among those children are Emily and Mark Appledorf’s two sons. Emily explained that once she and Mark decided to buy a house in Central New Jersey, they started looking in areas with young Jewish families.
“I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and went to a Jewish day school,” she said. “Mark does not have the same background, but was willing to do whatever made me happy. So it was important to us to find a shul in which we both felt comfortable. Then I ran into a childhood friend who was a member here. We both felt comfortable the moment we first walked in. I feel blessed to be a member of this synagogue.”
Beth Krinsky, a commercial real estate agent, believes, “What we need now is the infrastructure to support an Orthodox lifestyle, including more food options. And I believe the infrastructure will grow as the shul grows.”
Rabbi Brodkin thinks the synagogue’s refocus and revitalized programs will be the catalysts for exactly that kind of growth.
“With Highland Park to our north, Lakewood to our south, and Deal to our east, this is a perfect area for building a strong, inclusive Orthodox community.”
Rabbis Braun and Brodkin had similar responses when questioned about the other Orthodox options in their area, which include Chabad, Torah Links and the Union Hill Congregation in the Manalapan/Marlboro area and Chabad as well as the many Sephardic shuls in the Long Branch/Deal area. Both rabbis are more focused on the needs of their members than anything else.
Rabbi Braun likes to quote a phrase from the Talmud: “Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom,” which he explained means each is pushed by the other to be better, with the result that all benefit.
These two dynamic and charismatic rabbis are leading their congregations with the shared goal of strengthening their individual shuls. In the process, they are—to paraphrase Rabbi Braun—strengthening the broader community as well.
JOANN ABRAHAM BEGAN CHRONICLING JEWISH LIFE AS EDITOR OF MONMOUTH COUNTY’S JEWISH NEWSPAPER, NOW DEFUNCT, AND HAS WRITTEN FOR NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL PUBLICATIONS. SHE IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.