Issue No. 4   July 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

New Jersey's only remaining 19th century synagogues

At one time, Newark could boast of 53 synagogues; today there are but two left, and neither occupies a building from the last century. The Prince Street synagogue, built in 1884 by the Oheb Shalom congregation which was founded in 1860; it was the third synagogue organized in Newark and services were conducted in German until sometime in the 1880s, when English became standard. The Moorish-style building was transferred to the Adas Israel congregation in 1911, and later sold to the Metropolitan Baptist church, who worshiped there from 1940 to 1993. It was scheduled for demolition when it was rescued at the last moment from the wrecker's ball and now is being restored by the Greater Newark Conservancy.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there were numerous synagogues in Paterson, where the first one in the state was organized in 1847, and sizable Jewish populations resided in Elizabeth, Trenton, Passaic and throughout Hudson county, but only Hoboken among those early centers has a synagogue that dates to that period. Congregation Adas Emuno was organized in 1871 and built the vaguely Romanesque building on Garden Street in 1883, which they occupied until at least 1940. It served as a Christian church for a time but now has been converted into an apartment building.

Of all of the synagogues built in the nineteenth century in New Jersey, at least seven survive, five in south Jersey. One is clearly at risk, and a couple of the others appear tenuous, as they do not house active congregations. To understand the curious geographical distribution of the survivors, a little history is needed.
     Although the initial Jewish settlers arrived in the early part of the 18th century, well-documented in the area of Bound Brook and Piscataway, it was not until the 1840s that sizable numbers of German Jews arrived in New Jersey, largely in Newark and Passaic. Newark's Springfield Avenue, Prince Street and High Street were known as "der Deutsche Berg," the German hill, for the number of Jews concentrated there. In the 1850s, additional immigrants, largely Orthodox Jews from Poland arrived and in the 1880s, following persecution in Russia and eastern Europe, thousands immigrated to New York and New Jersey. Since many of the earliest immigrants had been largely assimilated into the social and cultural life of the Jersey cities, they were uncomfortable with the mass of Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Jews flooding in from eastern Europe, whose dress and customs, they felt, might jeopardize their social standing. One result was that money was raised by organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of New York, to sponsor agricultural colonies in south Jersey, Texas and North Dakota. The first such colony was established in Alliance, in Salem county in 1882, joined shortly thereafter by similar colonies in Woodbine, Carmel, Rosenhayn, Norma, Brotmanville, Six Points, and Mizpah.

The synagogue in Alliance was built in 1884-85 by the Tifereth Israel congregation and resembles a large house, except for the two extended windows on the gable end. It is well-maintained but does not appear to hold services (I photographed it on a Friday afternoon).

Atlantic City's Beth Israel congregation built this Moorish style synagogue in 1891-93 on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the Trump Taj Mahal Casino. It later served as a restaurant and a rooming house, but now is boarded up and for sale. The Moorish style, not evident any longer, was one of the commoner architectural styles adopted for Jewish worship, although there are examples of Georgian, Greek revival and Romanesque synagogues throughout the county.

Woodbine is a sprawling town with wide streets in Cape May county; it hosted the most successful of the agricultural colonies. The synagogue was built in 1893 by the Woodbine Brotherhood congregation. This is a substantial brick building, externally very much in the manner of several of the late nineteenth century Baptist and Methodist churches of south Jersey. I understand it has been acquired by a former Woodbine family member and will be restored as a museum.

Ahavas Achim congregation built a small synagogue in Norma, in Salem county, about 1888. It sits on a quiet residential street, and there is no sign or architectural feature that suggests a house of worship. The architectural idiom here seems traditional American vernacular—there is no hint of any Russian element, or even any resemblance to synagogues elsewhere in the county. There were several other, rather simple residential-style buildings, built as synagogues in Salem county, dating to the early years of the twentieth century.

The last synagogue built in nineteenth century New Jersey lies in Rosenhayn, a large township in Cumberland county; the synagogue, built about 1898 by congregation Or Yisrael, is located miles away from any population center, which poses the question of how the early settlers got to services since the Orthodox sects are not permitted to ride on the Sabbath. The farms were apparently smaller than, with plots of only a few acres, or even less, so we can assume that the population density was greater a century ago than today. Although well-maintained, the synagogue does not appear to be in use.

Where lightning, depredations of British troops and growing congregations spelled doom for many of the early Presbyterian churches, the state's synagogues seemed to have succumbed to the rapid economic and social mobility of their congregations. The Third Ward in Newark, for example, had 22,000 Jews in 1924, but only 600 twenty years later. In south Jersey, the agricultural colonies prospered for years, but eventually the lure of the city diminished the Jewish population in scores of those late nineteenth century towns.

I am indebted to Mark Gordon of Maplewood for identifying several of these synagogues and for providing essential background information. Some of the dates given here are at variance with those of Mr. Gordon in his March 1966 article in American Jewish History and are based on Josephine Jackett's equally invaluable publication, The Churches of Salem County, Salem Tercentenary Committee, 1964.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel