The first glimmer of what today is Adath Israel Congregation was in November 1920, when Samuel Levin and Sol Phillips-Perlman recognized the need for a Conservative synagogue on the growing west side of Trenton.
By October 1925, a cornerstone had been laid for a building on Bellevue Avenue, designed by Louis Kaplan, the famed architect who designed the Trenton War Memorial.
Adath Israel has begun a year-long celebration of its 90th anniversary, as well as Rabbi Daniel Grossman’s 25th year as the congregation’s religious leader (see sidebar).
Irene Lindner, whose father, Simon Schenkman, owned a men’s clothing store in Trenton, has been at Adath Israel since its founding, when she was nine years old.
“My family was so excited about it; my father was one of the first committee people to create it,” recalled Lindner, who herself created the Adath Israel archives. As a child, she lived a seven-minute walk from the synagogue, where she went weekly on Shabbat mornings. Sunday school classes were in the building’s basement. She was in the first, or one of the first, confirmation classes.
German-born Rudy Loewenstein joined Adath Israel 65 years ago this past Rosh Hashana. Having immigrated to New York City in 1937 and attended the National Farm School in Doylestown, Pa., he got a job on a NJ dairy and poultry farm in Robbinsville.
He remembers coming to Adath Israel and asking the first man he saw how to buy a ticket for High Holy Day services. “I can’t tell you; I’m only the rabbi here,” Loewenstein said he was told by Rabbi Joshua Kohn. The rabbi sent him to the congregational president, Bernie Alexander, who urged him to join the shul. The $75 a year membership fee amounted to a month’s salary for Loewenstein.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Alexander assured him. “Join us and when you have the money you’ll pay us.”
Loewenstein was a good investment for the congregation: he has been president of the men’s club and the congregation, a committee and board member, and is still the ritual chair; he is also the only person who has been selected twice as the synagogue’s Man of the Year.
Kohn spearheaded the addition of a school and auditorium, whose ground-breaking was in 1950. The large auditorium was host to any large functions held by Jewish organizations in Trenton, recalled Loewenstein.
Loewenstein has also seen the evolution of women’s roles. At first, the only woman who sat on the board was the sisterhood president, and in 1951 a constitutional amendment stated that not more than four women could serve on the board. Women were permitted to have aliyot after a vote in 1963.
However, the first bat mitzva was celebrated in 1951, when Ruth Alexander (now Sugarman), daughter of then president Bernie Alexander, said she wanted to have the service. The rabbi, trained in Orthodoxy, studied the issue and could not come up with an objection. The synagogue became egalitarian, and women celebrated b’not mitzva and were counted as members of a minyan.
In the 1950s, the synagogue added a new education wing, additional faculty, an educational director, and a nursery school. In the ’70s, Rabbi Gary Charleston was involved in initiating Holocaust study in area high schools and at Rider College.
During the tenure of Rabbi Martin Merin, who came to Adath Israel in 1984, the congregation undertook a demographic study, culminating in the 1986 purchase of 6.8 acres on Lawrenceville Road. With the coming of Rabbi Grossman in 1988, architects and general contractors were hired, and in November 1989 the congregation moved into its new building in Lawrenceville.
Adath Israel members pride themselves on the synagogue’s openness, a quality nurtured by Grossman and Hazzan Arthur Katlin. For Katlin this has meant making b’nei mitzva fully inclusive and accessible. In 1994 Katlin helped Ari Gerstein, who is deaf, by using a combination of lip synching and hand motions, as Ari’s mother did “real” sign language. “I received a beautiful letter from Ari thanking me for helping a deaf boy sing,” said Katlin.
Inclusiveness was also reflected in the March 2010 merger with Ahavath Israel synagogue of Ewing in a campaign called Beit Echad (One House). During a musical celebration of the merger, members of Ahavath Israel walked into the Adath Israel sanctuary under a huppa, like a bride being brought to her groom, and its leaders were introduced to the congregation.