There was a time in the mid 1940s, Norma Fuerst Allen (nee Winetsky) remembers, when she and the other teenagers at Congregation Anshe Chesed formed the largest contingent of the National Council of Synagogue Youth in New Jersey.
That was in the 1940s, when Fuerst Allen and her parents, and her grandparents before her, belonged to what was a thriving Orthodox synagogue in Linden. The community would hold its own into the 1970s, but in the decades that followed its numbers dwindled to the point where she feared for its survival.
But Anshe Chesed persevered, and, thanks to canny marketing and an openness to generational change, this month it is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Fuerst Allen, who served as president in 2002-03, is cochair of the committee planning the gala celebration, taking place at the shul on Sunday, June 22. She is serving alongside folks with a much shorter history there, in a partnership that is clearly congenial.
They include Rabbi Joshua Hess, who came on board in 2009, and the congregation’s executive vice president Josh Weiss, who moved to Linden two years earlier when he and his wife Eliana were newlyweds.
“We’d looked at apartments in other places, but in Linden we could afford to buy a house, and we really liked the feel of the area,” he said.
Fuerst Allen— like the other longtime members — has welcomed newcomers, and readily handed over the reins to them. “We’ve been happy to let the younger people take the lead,” she said.
Hess attributes the harmony in his flock to the older members’ flexibility and their readiness to relinquish control. “This is a congregation of people who have always been willing to adapt and change,” he said. It’s the aspiration underlined in the motto on the shul’s website: “Drawing from a Rich Tradition — Inspiring a New Generation.”
Of course, when it comes to a landmark like this, the “old-timers” have a special contribution to make. The gala program will include a telling of Anshe Chesed’s history, from its early days in a building on Blancke Street, through a split when some members joined a Conservative congregation, and moves to two other locations, before the congregation landed at its present site on the corner of Orchard Terrace and St. George’s Avenue.
Laura Weitzman, a retired educator, is serving as shul historian. She has been around “only” since she got married, she said, but her husband Morton, now 81, has been a member all his life and had grandparents who were members. She is piecing the record together from anecdotes and from volumes of old newsletters and memorabilia.
On a recent morning, she, Fuerst Allen, Hess, and Weiss were all pouring over the yellowed pages, with the older members pointing out fondly remembered faces and describing key events to the newer folks, making them laugh with anecdotes about dynamics much like those of the current community.
In the 1970s, Anshe Chesed had about 250 members. But by the 1990s, with the community buffeted by demographic changes, it was in serious decline. Its highly respected leader, Rabbi Steven Dworken, who at one period was president of the Rabbinical Council of America, could not turn the tide. His successor, Rabbi Cary Friedman, and Rabbi Aryeh Stechler, who followed him, together with lay leaders launched a marketing campaign to attract young Orthodox couples from elsewhere in the tri-state region.
They emphasized three factors: the affordability of housing, proximity to the Orthodox day schools of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, and the congregation’s habit of welcoming people with varying levels of observance while maintaining Modern Orthodox norms. One drawback was that Anshe Chesed didn’t have its own mikva, or ritual bath, but its members have access to ones in Elizabeth and Hillside.
The dwindling was staunched and numbers have held steady, with newcomers making up for the attrition of age and migration. When Hess and his wife Naava came five years ago, there were about 120 members, including 14 “young families” — those with school-age children; now there are around 130, with 30 young families, with 60 children between them.
The synagogue also bolstered its finances by renting space to Yeshiva Zichron Leyma, an Orthodox learning institution for boys 18 to 21.
A father of four, Hess has strived to make the area more kid-friendly. He worked to win kosher certification for two local ice cream parlors as well as for a deli and the bakery in the ShopRite in nearby Clark.
“We’ve been lucky,” Weitzman said. “We’ve had the right rabbis at the right times, the right lay people making wise decisions, and we’ve had that community support from the Linden City Council.”
At the late-afternoon party on June 22, the organizers say, there will be a blend of nostalgia and newness. For example, they might resurrect the old page number gadget that helped people follow the service, and they plan to offer some of the favorite dishes from kiddushes of the past, but they’ll also have the lighter fare favored these days. Presenters, dressed in the garb of the period, will each relate one period in the congregation’s history.
And on view in the adjoining area will be their new pride and joy, one that they hope will ensure their strength for decades to come — their own mikva, under construction and on schedule for completion by the end of this summer.