Centenarian synagogue celebrates with a facelift
Shul with long past, busy present undergoes ‘miraculous’ renovation
Members of the 300-family Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park donated more than $1.1 million to renovate and beautify their shul to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
“The renovations are inspiring, but it’s the people who make it beautiful,” said Rabbi Emeritus Eliezer Kaminetzky, who retired in 1999 after 32 years as religious leader of Ohav Emeth. “The renovations are so inspiring, they just envelop the people who attend.”
The Orthodox synagogue celebrated both milestones April 13-14 with a kiddush lunch, a tribute dinner, and a concert by the a cappella group Six13.
Building committee cochair Michael Garber met his wife, Sharon, at the synagogue in 1984, and, he said, “all good things that have happened to me since then have been the result of that.” His said his desire to continue to help the synagogue stems from knowing “of all the good deeds we do for the religious organizations and the community.”
He cited as one example actions following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when many homes in the borough were left without electricity for weeks. The shul was fortunate to have power, Garber said, and opened its doors to the community, offering food and shelter.
“We are a community organization in every single way,” he said.
Current religious leader Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman has been at Ohav Emeth for 20 years.
“We have a very active synagogue,” he said. “We have multiple minyanim every day. We host the community kollel in our beit midrash, where community members and rabbis study. We have a full range of youth programs. We pride ourselves on being supportive of all the community yeshivot and are supporters of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and all its efforts on behalf of the Jewish people.”
Kaufman said the shul’s members, through their “love of Torah and Hashem,” welcomed and supported Holocaust survivors who came to the community after World War II, and many members are active in Bikur Cholim of Raritan Valley, whose corps of volunteers visit the sick and homebound. “We help anywhere we can,” said Kaufman. “We have a very active charity fund that over the years has helped hundreds, if not thousands, mostly anonymously, who suffer financial hardship.”
The more than 100 families from the congregation who have made aliyah in the last 20 years remain connected to Ohav Emeth, according to Kaufman.
The congregation began humbly when a group of Hungarian immigrants met in 1917 in the home of Eugene Nagy in New Brunswick and decided to establish a minyan in the home of Morris Katz, also in New Brunswick. That minyan, led by Rabbi Samuel Baskin, was incorporated in 1919 as Congregation Ohav Emeth Anshe Ungarn, or Congregation Lovers of Truth of the Hungarians. It would be led variously by rabbis Moshe Klein, Pesach Raymon, and Irwin Greenberg before Kaminetzky assumed the pulpit in 1967.
Over the years, the congregation changed locations to accommodate its growing membership. The first move, not long after its beginnings, was to space within the former A.S. Marcus YMHA on New Street. Several years later, it moved to its own building, also on New Street, where it would remain until its next move, to Morris Street, in 1961. In 1973, the leaders decided to follow many Ohav Emeth members across the Raritan River by holding some services in the basement of Kaminetzky’s home in Highland Park.
Then, in 1977, under the guidance of Herman Weisberger, a former congregation president, Ohav Emeth purchased its own home: the former Metropolitan Life Insurance building on Raritan Avenue. As the Orthodox community in Highland Park and south Edison grew, the building was expanded, and in 2012, the social hall, bathrooms, and washing areas were renovated.
The lead gifts for the current refurbishment, which began in 2014, were a $250,000 bequest left by Renee Silverstein, a longtime member who lived in Edison and died in 2014, and $150,000 donated by Edward and Sharon Lowinger, longstanding members who live in Edison, in memory of his parents, Agnes and Alex Lowinger.
Much of the rest of the funds for the project came from donations from congregants within a six-to-nine-month span, according to building committee cochair Norman Heyden, who took NJJN on a tour of the renovated facility on April 17.
He said when he and his wife, Sharon, got married in 2008 and came to Ohav Emeth, they were immediately impressed with the warmth and good deeds of the congregation, its rabbi, and its members; but they admitted they were “disappointed” in the synagogue’s appearance. Now, things are different. “People began to get excited” as the renovation progressed and they “wanted to give money,” Heyden said.
The one-story synagogue contains a main sanctuary, a beit midrash, a social hall, a kitchen and an auxiliary kitchen, a toddler room/classroom, the main office, and the rabbi’s office.
While the work inside is mostly complete, workers were seen cutting wood and putting on finishing touches.
The renovation includes new flooring, custom-built bookcases in the hallway, custom woodwork throughout the building, and new lighting fixtures. In the sanctuary, where new cushioned benches and flooring have been installed, the ark has been embellished to include panels depicting the seven days of creation and the Ten Commandments; a new custom-designed ner tamid, or eternal light, hangs above the ark; and new stained-glass windows highlighting key events in Jewish history — including the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah at Sinai — adorn the women’s section.
In the beit midrash, the ark and ner tamid are also new, as is a smaller version of the mechitzah designed to suggest the Kotel in Jerusalem that has been installed in the main sanctuary.
That mechitzah, the barrier separating the men’s and women’s sections, “really took a lot of design work,” said Heyden. “We had to design it so the men shouldn’t see the women, but the women could be able to see the men. We feel we’ve accomplished that with museum-quality non-reflective acrylic panels on which we’ve placed mesh images of the Kotel.”
The building’s facade has also been spruced up.
Surveying the work, Heyden paused to search for the right words. “The change has been like a miracle.”
Many longtime members expect the renovations will enhance their store of wonderful memories.
Arline Markel’s grandparents, Philip and Rose Linker, were among the congregation’s founders. As one of the few families who lived in Highland Park rather than New Brunswick, on Shabbat and holidays she and her family had to cross the Raritan River over the Albany Street Bridge to get to Ohav Emeth.
“My grandfather was treasurer of the shul for 45 years,” Markel said. “He kept excellent records. I have a book from the 1930s that is handwritten with things like, ‘Mr. Goldstein paid $5.’ My parents, Ruby and Sylvia Markel, were married in the synagogue on New Street in 1938.”
Back in those days, Markel recalled, women sat upstairs and men downstairs; her mother would sit in the first row with her friends, and, she said, “10 or 12 women ran all the affairs at the shul.”
While there were not yet any youth groups, Markel said, the synagogue ran a Sunday school and Hebrew school.
Kaminetzky, who serves as chaplain for the Highland Park Police Department, said his standout memory from his early days with the synagogue was the close relationship with Rutgers Hillel and its founder and executive director, Rabbi Julius Funk.
“Rutgers Hillel was on George Street [in downtown New Brunswick] back then, and the students would come to us for Shabbos services and I would go there to give shiurim,” or lessons, the rabbi said. “We interfaced with a lot of young people, and there was a lot of camaraderie between our older members, some of whom were refugees from the Holocaust, and these young collegians — which was very beautiful.”