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Neve Shalom's History

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITIES OF
METUCHEN, EDISON, COLONIA AND WOODBRIDGE

In March 2005, Neve Shalom celebrated the 50th anniversary of the dedication of its current building on 250 Grove Avenue in Metuchen. As we celebrate this milestone, we are now a vibrant congregation of more than 500 families from Metuchen, Edison, Colonia, Woodbridge, and the surrounding region.

When the Borough of Metuchen was incorporated in 1900, the Jewish families were too few in number to establish a house of worship and study. They did, however, meet in each others homes for religious services on Shabbat and holidays. High Holiday services were conducted on the farm of H. Gray. Around 1930, Morris (Pop) Wernik arranged for the rental of the Royal Arcanum Hall on Main Street for the High Holidays and social events. A local pharmacist with a beautiful singing voice, Wernik worked tirelessly for the Jewish community becoming the shamus, hazzan, rabbi, fund-raiser, and bikor cholim all rolled into one person! There were about 20 active families representing all walks of life in the community during those early years. Professions included an attorney, lumber and millworker, chicken farmer, butcher, vegetable store proprietor, vegetable farmer, dentist, clothing and department store proprietor, newspaper and stationery store proprietor, tailor, grocer, physician, pajama manufacturer, and research chemist.

In 1938, the research chemist, Dr. Walter K. Nelson was elected the first president of the congregation. Now approaching his 100th birthday, Dr. Nelson remains a member of the synagogue. Morris (Pop) Wernik became treasurer, and Max Braunstein (a chicken farmer residing on Vineyard Road in Raritan Township-now Edison) was named secretary. Through the tireless efforts of Wernik and the financial contributions of department store proprietor Edward Kramer, a two-family house was purchased at 17 Highland Avenue in Metuchen. It became the synagogue’s first real home. In 1941, a charter was obtained and the congregation was named Metuchen Jewish Community Center. Membership increased steadily as new families moved into the area from New York City and other areas in Middlesex, Union, and Essex Counties. A Women’s Auxiliary (Sisterhood) was formed, a Sunday religious school was established and Shabbat and holiday services were conducted by a student Rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary. During World War II, the synagogue and many of its members became active in community efforts at Camp Kilmer and the Red Cross volunteer services.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits Neve Shalom

By 1946, the congregation grew so large that it began to seek new quarters . In 1949, a new building was dedicated at 22 Center Street in Metuchen. Much bigger than the house on Highland Avenue, the synagogue now housed a sanctuary, a social hall with a kitchen, and two classrooms. William Berkowitz, a Jewish Theological Seminary student, became spiritual leader and oversaw a tremendous growth in membership and spiritual and social activities including the establishment of adult education classes, a choir, weekday religious school, Young Judea, and Hadassah.

By 1953, the community numbered over 225 families and it was already time to seek yet another new home. On March 13, 1954, the present structure at 250 Grove Avenue in Metuchen was dedicated as Temple Neve Shalom (Habitation of Peace) and Metuchen- Edison Jewish Center. The new building had a large sanctuary, gymnasium, six classrooms, library, Rabbi’s study, offices for staff, and small chapel. A 1986 addition greatly increased seating capacity in the sanctuary and added the Miller Ballroom. A new chapel is being planned as an addition to the building.

Rabbi Charles Abeles became the first full-time spiritual leader and served from 1953 until 1957. He was followed by Rabbis Phineas Kadushin (1957-58) and Hershel Matt (1958-70). Our current spiritual leader, Rabbi Gerald Zelizer has served Neve Shalom since 1970 has established one of the largest and finest Jewish adult education programs, lay participatory services, and instituted participation of women in the service en route to the congregation’s becoming the first fully egalitarian Conservative synagogue in the region. In addition, the synagogue offers a full range of social and spiritual activities, youth and senior activities. Ben Stein became the first Hazzan (Cantor) in 1960 and served until 1973. He was followed by Mordechai Goldstein ( 1974-2001). Our current Hazzan, Sheldon Levin also serves as education director.

Spring 2006 marked a bittersweet moment in the life cycle of the Jewish community in Northern Middlesex County. Due to the shifting demographics of the Jewish population, another synagogue (Congregation Adath Israel of Woodbridge) closed its doors and joined with Neve Shalom to form a strong union. This phenomenon is certainly not a new one, but has taken place throughout our State’s history, most recently when Ohev Shalom of Colonia joined ranks with us. There have been dozens of mergers of congregations, at first from urban to suburban and formerly rural areas, and now more often than not, from one suburban area to another. This pattern repeats itself in every county of New Jersey.

Here in Middlesex County, only New Brunswick and Perth Amboy had significant Jewish communities in the 19th century. New Brunswick’s community was organized before the Civil War with the German immigration and expanded greatly later in the century with the large wave of Eastern European arrivals. Perth Amboy’s started in the later half of the century with mostly people of Eastern European background. Jewish institutions abounded everywhere in these urban centers. At the same time, Jewish farmers laid the foundation for strong communities in the southern part of the county, mostly in South Brunswick Township.

It was not until the 20th century that the community spread to rural and newly developing suburban enclaves in Woodbridge Township. Some were new to the region, but many were from the older urban centers. Thus Congregation Adath Israel was founded in downtown Woodbridge. From 1907 until the construction of a permanent building in 1923, Adath Israel met at a hotel, farm, Masonic hall, and in a loft over a department store on Main Street. In 1955, yet another congregation was formed in Iselin, Congregation Beth Sholom. This shul was active until 1980 when again, shifting demographics led to its merging with Adath Israel.

At about the same time that Adath Israel was being established in downtown Woodbridge, a new congregation was born in Avenel. In 1906, the Jewish community began to organize in Avenel and surrounding area and davened in the Avenel Hotel. By 1913, a synagogue was built and Congregation B’nai Jacob was born. It grew steadily, and the building was remodeled, then expanded. The congregation grew fourfold from 40 families to nearly 180 in the decade from 1953 to 1963 alone! During that growth period, the community in Colonia, Congregation Beth Ahm was also established and rapidly expanding. However, by the 1970s, the area could no longer support two communities and in 1977, Beth Ahm and B’nai Jacob merged to form Congregation Ohev Shalom, which until 2003 (when it merged with Neve Shalom in Metuchen) was the center of Jewish life in Colonia and the surrounding region.

Thus from five active synagogues in Woodbridge Township (Adath Israel, Beth Ahm, Beth Sholom, B’nai Jacob, and Ohev Shalom) none remain active today. Many of the active members’ families have moved to other parts of the county and New Jersey. For those who remain, they are all welcome as an integral part of our Neve Shalom family as we carry on our long tradition, and now also the traditions of those from Adath Israel, Ohev Shalom and all other places from which we migrated.

The archives of Neve Shalom are housed at Special Collections and University Archives at the Rutgers University Libraries and fully available to the public for research.

Mon, January 21 2019 15 Shevat 5779