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Agudath Israel celebrates a 90-year milestone
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Agudath Israel celebrates a 90-year milestone

In 1922, 30 families built the first home for a growing shul

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell is celebrating a milestone: the 90th anniversary of its very first building.

The synagogue’s 30 founding families constructed that first home on Washburn Avenue in Caldwell in 1922, two years after they formally established themselves as a congregation. It was a one-room, stucco facility that served the congregation known then as the Jewish League of Caldwell.

Since then, the congregation has moved once, expanded, changed its name, undergone two subsequent renovations, and grown to 940 families.

CAI is celebrating with a series of events, including a progressive dinner this Saturday evening honoring early childhood leaders, a concert featuring Jewish gospel singer Joshua Nelson, and a special kabalat Shabbat service. A Sunday brunch in June will honor the synagogue’s founding members.

For long-time members, the anniversary is bringing back memories of the original building and the versions that succeeded it.

Betty Perl was planning her wedding in 1949, at a time when the congregation was starting to outgrow the Washburn Avenue shul.

“I wanted to get married in the synagogue, but the building was too small,” she told NJJN. “So my father wrote a check to the congregation and told the board to buy a new building. But if they hadn’t begun construction within a year, he would take the check back. They hustled!”

The new building, around the corner on Academy Road, was not ready in time for Betty’s wedding, but the $100,000 donation from her parents, Eve and Robert Blumberg, enabled the ground breaking in 1951. That building was completed in 1952.

The congregation held onto the original building and used it for religious school and for meetings, but by 1955 had grown out of that space. They used its sale to help finance the purchase of the property next door to the new building, still home to CAI but transformed by two major renovation projects.

The oldest living member of Agudath Israel is Deena Hollander, who recently celebrated her own 90th birthday. Hollander grew up next door to Betty Perl and her two siblings; the older one, Annice, and Deena became lifelong friends, establishing their own Jewish girls’ club, before United Synagogue Youth was established.

As an adult, Hollander catered countless events for the congregation, and she held every position in the synagogue sisterhood, including president; her late husband, Mel, served as congregation president.

She told NJJN that the biggest change in the congregation is the size. “It’s so big! But we’re always changing for the good,” she said.

In 1960, a new constitution brought with it a new name: Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex.

By 1988, the congregation was again outgrowing its building and undertook “Renovate in ’88,” a campaign that saw the completion by 1991 of a refurbished sanctuary, a new religious school wing, expanded offices and meeting rooms, new kitchens, a new chapel, and a hallway that allowed open access to each part of the facility.

The second expansion, completed in 2009, included an enlarged sanctuary, a modern early childhood center, updated religious school classrooms, and an adult programming wing with a library, study center, and multi-media equipment.

Through nine decades of changes, the congregation has had only three pulpit rabbis: Rabbi Goldman, Morris Werb, and the current rabbi, Alan Silverstein.

“The key to our success is the leadership of Rabbi Werb (1934 through 1979) and Rabbi Silverstein (1979 to present) and the partnership the professional staff has with our lay leaders,” wrote current CAI president Esther Kartus in an article for the synagogue bulletin. “I am sure that all past presidents would agree that a leader cannot be successful without an enormous amount of support and teamwork.”

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