By Debra Rubin
Perth Amboy, once home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in New Jersey, has in recent years watched the last vestiges of Jewish life disappear. Since an exodus began in the 1950s, the once more than 5,000-strong community–comprising about 15 percent of the city’s population–has dwindled to a handful of mostly elderly Jews.
Gone are the kosher butcher shops and Jewish-owned stores that once dotted the downtown. The YMHA of Perth Amboy, once the center of community activity, closed in 2003 after 103 years. There used to be five congregations in Perth Amboy; now there’s one. The city’s last Orthodox synagogue, 108-year-old Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, closed its doors several months ago–though there are members who are taking legal action to block the official closure. The lone remaining shul in operation, the 114-year-old Conservative congregation Beth Mordecai–whose members come mostly from nearby towns–will have to make some serious decisions about its direction in the near future.
“I don’t think anybody needs a crystal ball to see the demographics in Perth Amboy are not what they used to be,” said Beth Mordecai president Michael Gast. “We are actively trying to solicit new members but we are also exploring other alternatives, including possibly a merger.
“But, nothing is written in stone and we are still hopeful we will be able to increase our membership and be able to continue. There’s a lot of history here.”
That history is about to be retold in a book whose author, Robert Spector, grew up in Perth Amboy. The writer, who now lives in Seattle, has already penned a history of mom and pop businesses in America inspired by his childhood in the town. He said his as-yet-untitled history of its Jewish community is due out next March.
Among those contributing to the effort is Marilyn Millet Goldberg of Monroe, a 1954 graduate of Perth Amboy High School, who said she has been researching the history of the community for 10 years and is part of Friends of Perth Amboy Jewish History, Inc.
Goldberg, who grew up in Congregation Beth Israel–which merged with Shaarey Tefiloh in the early 1970s–has been delving into the story of Perth Amboy’s Jews with the help of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey. The project fell through, but was revived several years ago by a 15-person team of volunteer researchers, former residents led by Dr. Mona Shangold of Moorestown.
“It was just the most wonderful Jewish community in which to grow up,” said Goldberg, whose grandfather was a founding member of Beth Israel. “We had Jewish sororities. The center of our lives was the Y and shopping on Smith Street.”
“It was almost like a Camelot for Jews,” agreed Spector. “Like Camelot, it was just this wonderful period that existed for a short period of time that is no more.”
A ‘Wonderful Period’
Shep Sewitch, 90, is a lifelong resident. Part of the five-member presidium at Shaarey Tefiloh, he recalled gathering at the Y, with its swimming pool, two bowling alleys, ping-pong and billiard rooms, auditorium, and gymnasium.
“We had basketball games every Sunday night where we played other Ys and the place was filled with people,” he said. “There was dancing between halves. But when Milton Berle came on television on Sunday nights, that was the end of Sunday-night basketball.”
Sewitch, who estimated there are only 12 to 15 Jews left in the city, said that most of the young Jews who served in World War II did not return to the city, settling instead in nearby suburbs, “and we just lost our Jewish population.”
The Perth Amboy Jewish community had thrived in an atmosphere where Orthodox and Conservative Jews intermingled. There was little anti-Semitism in the ethnically diverse immigrant city.
Goldberg recalled everyone was welcomed at all synagogues. As a teen, she and her friends would meet on the High Holy Days and walk from Shaarey Tefiloh to nearby Beth Israel and back. The group was also known to come to Beth Mordecai for Shabbat. Some members of the Orthodox shuls were not Orthodox in practice, but stayed because they were the synagogues of their parents and grandparents.
Goldberg became a bat mitzvah with her class at Beth Israel, something she acknowledged “was really out there” for an Orthodox synagogue in that era.
Shangold, like her parents, was born in Perth Amboy and grew up in the Shaarey Tefiloh community, where her fondest memories are of playing ball in the rooftop garden of the Y. She would head downstairs where the Orthodox community ran an independent afternoon Hebrew school four days a week. Beth Mordecai had its own Hebrew school.
The 64-year-old Shangold is a gynecologist like her father, Jack, who had a practice in Perth Amboy for many years and served as president of the YMHA and Perth Amboy Jewish Community Council.
“Every holiday, every seat was always filled,” she said of Shaarey Tefiloh. “No one then could have ever imagined a time there would be no Jews in Perth Amboy.”
Congregation Beth Mordecai is working hard to keep that from happening. Rabbi Melinda Zalma said the synagogue’s membership stands at 80—85 families and it has managed to lure some new members because of its low $600 annual fee. Since taking over about five years ago, she has instituted additional programming and adult education, which has brought in some new faces. But, she added, it has not had a youth group or Hebrew school for some years.
Shaarey Tefiloh After Fire
Three members of Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh in Perth Amboy are appealing a decision by a Middlesex County Superior Court judge upholding the sale of the historic Orthodox synagogue to an international spirituality and meditation group.
The 14-page decision by Judge Frank M. Ciuffani, issued May 31 after a trial running April 30—May 9, dismisses the members’ claims that the 109-year-old shul did not follow its own bylaws in voting to shutter the building and accept the $925,000 offer from the Science of Spirituality.
Perth Amboy has seen most members of its formerly robust Jewish community, among the oldest and once one of the largest in the state, depart for the suburbs in recent decades.
Shaarey Tefiloh had only about 25 members left and could no longer draw a minyan. It closed about a year ago. When it scheduled a contents sale for October 23, three members–Herschel Chomsky of Perth Amboy and his sister, Zephyr, of Edison, and Dr. Alan Goldsmith, went to court to try to halt the sale.
The Chomskys are the children of Rabbi Aaron Chomsky, who served at the shul from 1983 to 1992. Goldsmith grew up in Perth Amboy and is founder and president of the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center there.
Herschel Chomsky, the only member of the congregation presidium to vote against the closure and sale, told NJJN that a yeshiva in Roosevelt was interested in renting the building. “There was no reason it had to close,” said Chomsky. “We have a party who is still interested in coming to Perth Amboy. But, every time [the presidium members] talked to anyone, somebody always had a different demand.”
Chomsky said as a presidium member, he has a key and continues to go by himself every Shabbat to quietly pray at the synagogue. He said he sometimes is joined in a show of support by Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, who is not Jewish.
“My hope is that we can save the synagogue and hopefully all get along together,” said Chomsky.
However, presidium member Shep Sewitch said no credible offers were ever presented. Sewitch, a city resident for all of his more than 90 years, is the prime defendant named in the suit; others are his brother, William; Barry Rosengarten; and George Cohen.
“We’ve had at least a half-dozen yeshivas come and say they’d like to rent the building,” said Sewitch, “but you have to have a rich community to support any yeshiva. The yeshivas we have spoken to . . . all say they have wealthy backers, but the backers never show.”
He said he is now concerned that the buyer may withdraw its offer if the legal fight drags on much longer. Meanwhile, Sewitch said, utility bills and other expenses are still being incurred, although they have been sharply reduced since the structure was closed.
He said he doesn’t understand why the Chomskys and Goldsmith “are doing this. All they are doing is bankrupting our treasury. The congregation voted and did exactly what it was supposed to do according to the bylaws and our constitution. Whatever money we got was supposed to take care of our three cemeteries and if there was anything left to go to charity.”
‘More Than Curious’
Larry Loigman of Middletown, an attorney for the Chomskys and Goldsmith, said an appeal was filed because they believed the bylaws were misinterpreted.
“Part of the problem is that there are a number of sets of bylaws dating back to 1928,” said Loigman. The one that appears to be legitimate, he said, requires that 75 percent of the congregation vote. The 13—5 tally taken December 5, 2010, constitutes only about 72 percent of the congregation.
He said it is difficult to predict how long an appeal could take. “I’ve had appeals that have taken 6 months to be heard and others that have taken 18 months, and when the opinions come out sometimes it’s a week later or sometimes six months later,” said Loigman.
In his ruling, Ciuffani noted the plaintiffs had also claimed halacha, or Jewish law, was being flouted and asked that the defendants be required to go before a beit din, or Jewish court of law. That request was previously denied in October, although the judge noted a “default judgment” was entered by an unspecified beit din in the plaintiffs’ favor. The judge said Jewish houses of worship are traditionally considered to be congregational, vesting governing power in their membership.
Previous court rulings, he said, have held that when a house of worship is deemed congregational, civil courts must enforce the property decisions made by a majority of its members or by any other governing body it may have instituted.
Additionally, Ciuffani said, the Supreme Court has ruled that “neutral principles,” using “neutral, secular principles of property law,” should be applied when examining church deeds, constitutions, bylaws, or canons to settle property disputes, “thereby freeing civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.”
The judge also found it “more than curious” that Goldsmith and Herschel Chomsky never questioned the validity of the votes when they were taken. He said he found Sewitch’s testimony to be “credible and persuasive” and said although the bylaws adopted in 1966 state a three-fourths vote is needed in such matters, a note in the document’s margin states it was amended in 1977 to a simple majority.
A cover letter about the revision from the presidium to the synagogue’s executive committee was submitted to back that. (NJ Jewish News) v
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Anyone that has interest in helping to save this shul, please reach out and let’s build a community where Torah can once again prosper. Isn’t it time we finally find an affordable community for our young couples? This is a huge opportunity. Shaarey Tefilloh is in the process of being sold to an Islamic meditation organization after years of court battles. The Perth Amboy community is desperate to have some community come in and rebuild Perth Amboy. The houses are so affordable and you get so much for your money. It is 25 minutes from Brooklyn and it is a beautiful place to raise children. To help save Shaarey Tefiloh, please contact Herschel Chomsky at 908-217-3466.