Looking into what was the Elmora Hebrew Center a couple of weeks after it closed, you could still see the “haimish home-away-from-home,” that its leader, Rabbi Samuel Rosenberg, always wanted it to be.
The stained-glass windows shed color across the polished pews, and program flyers from Purim were still up on the notice board. But the eternal light, the ark curtains, and the Torah scrolls had been removed and put into storage. And the name plaques had been taken down from the tribute boards, restored to the donor families or packed to be sent to a venue in Israel (those wishing to inquire about plaques can call 908-353-1740).
In the background there were sounds of activity, but they came from workers and congregants ending one era — the 63 years the building on West End Avenue in Elizabeth served as an Orthodox synagogue — and preparing it for another —the building’s new life as a church.
On March 23, the shrinking congregation sold the building to 420 West End Association Inc., which in turn is selling it to the Iglesia Pentecostal Unida Latinomericana, Inc., to be used as a Pentecostal church. The last service, a morning minyan, was held there on Sunday, March 14. About 60 people were present — many more than have been regularly attending services over the past few years.
Said Rosenberg: “I joked that maybe we should become a ‘going-out-of-business’ shul, like those stores in Manhattan that keep going for years with ‘going-out-of-business-sale’ signs.”
In a city where most of the Orthodox Jewish community has functioned under the umbrella of the Jewish Educational Center, led by Rabbi Pinchas Teitz and then his son, Rabbi Elazar Teitz, the EHC has been an independent establishment, adding — as Rosenberg put it — to “the spiritual, social, and cultural diversity of the community.” (Affiliated with the JEC is the similarly named Elmora Avenue Shul.)
But the EHC had been shrinking slowly, from around 250 families in the early 1980s to about 50. Finally, the congregation faced the inescapable need to sell the building.
“The demographics changed,” said Rosenberg, “and perhaps this shul had fulfilled its mission — at least here, in this place.”
Rosenberg, 63, left open the possibility that the congregation will find a new home, somewhere closer to where members are living, in north Elizabeth or the town’s Elmora Hills section. While he is welcoming the chance to rest, he promised them he would wait before making new plans, to see if they will still need his services.
Rosenberg was hired in 1979 after the death of Rabbi Theodore Halberstadter, who had led the shul since its establishment in 1939, a breakaway from the old Bellevue Street Shul.
“It was a tough transition,” Rosenberg said. “People said he and I were very much alike, but others feared the change — until I suggested we take the name ‘Congregation Zichron Baruch,’ using the rabbi’s Hebrew name, in his honor. After that it was fine; they understood that I wasn’t trying to wipe out his memory.”
At one time, Rosenberg said, there were around 200 children in the congregation. There was a religious school, but he urged parents to send their children to the Jewish Educational Center yeshiva.
But while some of those families maintained connections with the EHC, others — pulled by children who wanted to be around their friends — switched their membership to one of the JEC congregations. Over time, many members moved and joined congregations closer to their new homes.
This past year, Robert Mandelbaum’s nine-year-old daughter was the only child in the congregation.
“She was the youngest member, and you know who was next youngest? Me!” said Mandelbaum, in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News soon after that last service. The family joined another shul, so that she would have children to play with, but they kept their membership of the EHC.
“We never wanted to leave,” Mandelbaum said. “Rabbi Rosenberg and everyone there made us so welcome. It was as if our daughter was growing up with 10 sets of grandmas and grandpas. This is very sad. But you can’t keep going if you don’t have the people.”
The Friday before the interview, Rosenberg and his wife, Eve Hecht, celebrated Shabbat with their son in Queens — the rabbi’s first Shabbat as an observer in decades.
Rosenberg said that the transition is less traumatic for him than it might have been. To gain more security, in the mid-1980s he made his rabbinic position part-time and went back to school to qualify as a psychologist. “It gave me skills that were beneficial for me in my pastoral capacity, and it made it possible for me to have a therapy practice,” he said.
That also meant that over the past two years, when the congregation was unable to cover its expenses, he was able to forgo his salary. That gave the members more time to come to their final decision.
“It had been spoken about for several years,” he said, “but sometimes painful decisions are left on the table and dealt with by denial. But when the bills could no longer be paid, the board finally drew the line.”
Among those working in the building last week was the president, David Newman. Asked how long he held that position, he laughed and said, “Forever.” He was also chairman of the board. His wife, Carol, served as the shul secretary for 30 years. Rosenberg hired her soon after he was hired. “I wanted someone who had a vision and dreams for the children in the synagogue, and she did,” he said.
“This is a sad loss for Elizabeth,” David Newman said. “There’s no other shul like this, that is so haimish.”