Cheryl Zelasko recalls with affection how her grandfather walked to her house Shabbat mornings to pick her up and bring her to Congregation Sons of Israel (CSI) in Manalapan. The ties the synagogue and its members fostered were fundamental to her life and her Jewish identity.
Although her father is Catholic, the synagogue registered the children as members under the name of her Orthodox grandparents, Abe and Becky Siegel, who owned a chicken farm on Gordons Corner Road. She is grateful for that kindness. “I could have easily been Catholic or nothing,” Zelasko told NJJN in a phone interview. “I could have been a casualty as a Jew. Those founding fathers were very kind. I have now been a modern Orthodox Jew for over 20 years.”
On Dec. 30, the 240-family synagogue will mark the 100th anniversary of its founding by farmers and small business owners who emigrated mostly from Russia and Poland. CSI was among the first synagogues in the Marlboro-Manalapan area.
“We became members because we were welcomed,” said Jack Linder, a past president who joined with his wife Louise about 1965. “It’s a trait that has continued to this day. Any new member is welcomed with open arms immediately as part of the family.”
The synagogue was chartered in 1917 and the building on Mechanic Street in Englishtown was constructed by member volunteers in 1919. The land was donated by the Kerstein and Fineberg families. Eventually the congregation outgrew its building and moved to its present site on Gordons Corner Road in 1969.
Zelasko said her brother was the first bar mitzvah celebrated in the Manalapan location.
“All four of my grandkids are Orthodox,” said Zelasko, who continues to pay her mother’s annual membership dues. “Because they [synagogue leaders] were inclusive they changed the whole impetus of my family.”
In an interview with NJJN, synagogue president Steve Wertheim commended the congregation’s 13 founders who banded together “to foster a spirit of fellowship and unity in the Manalapan area, and we are their legacy.”
That legacy was evident on Dec. 3 when 250 people, some of them descendants of the original 13, came from as far away as Houston for a luncheon and program.
The synagogue, Karen Moskowitz told NJJN in a phone interview, “was always a home. It was always there when I needed a home, and the older I get the more of a home it is.”
The Manalapan resident is a lifelong member and was tasked with locating and inviting the descendants of the various founders for the December celebration. Her father, Milton Berger, was a factory owner in Englishtown who donated the shul kitchen, and her grandparents, Anna and Joseph Berger, were among the founding families. A plaque outside its door bears her grandparents’ names.
“My grandparents would have been proud,” Moskowitz said of the congregation’s longevity.
Her son and daughter celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah there, and although her children no longer live in the area, “they know this is home.”
She said a $500,000 capital campaign was launched at the Dec. 3 program, and they raised $25,000 that day for improvements around the building and for programs promoting outreach to young, observant families.
Linder recalled what it was like being part of a growing synagogue. He was president during the move into what he termed a “cinderblock barn,” as the building wasn’t finished when they moved to Manalapan. It was built on land donated by K. Hovnanian & Co., and Linder said five volunteers came in with mops and brooms to prepare the building for High Holy Days services. It was dedicated on Columbus Day weekend of 1969.
“When I first became a member, we were down to 110 families and then we began to grow, and by 1969 there were probably 200 families,” he said. “We reached our zenith of near-500 members families in the late ’70s when a lot of housing developments were filling up. Now we’ve seen a decline with demographic changes as people have moved away.”
In its heyday, the synagogue had men’s, women’s, mixed doubles’, and kids’ bowling leagues, a Mr. And Mrs. Club for couples, and active youth groups and a Hebrew school. Additionally, the synagogue has produced five or six mayors, a number of board of education members, and volunteers in first aid squads and Jewish federation.
Rabbi Robert Pilavin has been religious leader of the synagogue, affiliated with the Traditional Movement, for 15 years. He has two ordinations, one from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and one from the Union for Traditional Judaism. True to its Orthodox roots, the shul for many years had an Orthodox-affiliated National Conference of Synagogue Youth chapter (NCSY) and hosted the kollels of Western Monmouth County and of Manalapan.
In its original location, the synagogue had a women’s balcony. Today’s congregation follows Orthodox observance, but allows mixed seating during services. Wertheim says they have a “hetzi,” or half, a mechitza, separating men and women. However, there is also a mixed seating section where the majority of congregants sit.
“We promote open-minded observance,” said Pilavin. “I like to say mechitza available on request.”
The rabbi said the congregation was one of the first of its kind.
“We were sort of the Johnny Appleseed for other area synagogues on the left and right, as people who weren’t that observant or who preferred a different type of service left our synagogue to form six or seven others,” Pilavin said.
Youngsters from CSI have been represented at every area day school, and Pilavin noted that more students had been enrolled at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County than from any Conservative synagogue.
The synagogue holds morning and evening minyans and has a thriving nursery school, but Wertheim conceded many members are middle-aged and up, although it has recently seen an upswing of young members.
“We see a bright future,” he said.