Historic society recalls Trenton’s Jewish past

Historic society recalls Trenton’s Jewish past

Former Trenton residents gather at a meeting of the revived Trenton Jewish Historical Society. 
Former Trenton residents gather at a meeting of the revived Trenton Jewish Historical Society. 

The once vibrant Jewish community of Trenton is gone, but for those who lived, socialized, and attended synagogue there, the memories will never die.

A small group dedicated to keeping those memories of bygone days alive gathered Nov. 5 at Greenwood House in Ewing to revive the Trenton Jewish Historical Society, which has been dormant in recent years. 

Among its leaders is Art Finkle, who now lives in Langhorne, Pa., but grew up in Trenton. He has been writing a monthly bulletin for two years, which has received 140,000 on-line hits. His book, Trenton’s Jews, is scheduled to be published in January and will be available on amazon.com.

Finkle also maintains a historical society Facebook page, which regularly posts vintage photographs and reminiscences about the community. 

A historical society was active until 1978. The late Ozzie Zuckerman served for many years as the community’s unofficial historian, maintaining and expanding its archives of photographs, audio tapes, and written material. Through 2006 he penned “The Old Neighborhood,” a column about the Jews of Trenton, for New Jersey Jewish News and its federation predecessor. Those archives are now housed at the Trenton Public Library.

“In 1960 Trenton had 12,000 Jews, then there was suburbanization and the [race] riots in 1968,” said Finkle. 

Those events triggered an exodus of a thriving community that flourished beginning with the immigration of German Jews between 1820 and 1880. They founded the Reform Sinai Hebrew Congregation in 1857, now Har Sinai Temple. The synagogue remained in the city until leaving for Pennington in 2006.The Germans were followed by Eastern European Jews, who came between 1881 and 1914. 

Finkle said many young people attended the Trenton Hebrew Academy, now Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pa., which was affiliated with the 130-year-old Conservative Congregation Brothers of Israel. That synagogue also left Trenton in 2007 for Newtown, Pa. 

“My great-grandfather founded it in the 1890s,” said Finkle. 

More than half the Jewish population resided in the area between South Broad and Warren streets, and Market Street and what is now Route 1. The Hungarian Jews lived off Broad Street, and the Hungarian shul was on Center Street, Finkle said, adding that “the Germans were more assimilated than the Hungarians.” 

What really set Trenton apart was that “it was like living in a shtetl.”

“It was a very close Jewish community,” Finkle said. “The American Jewish Yearbook listed only 2,300 Jews living there in 1903. As a result, Trenton had a very close Jewish community because everyone was related to everyone else.”

By 1907, Trenton’s Jewish population was approximately 4,000, including 700 German Jews, 250 Hungarian, and 3,050 “Russians.” Besides the six synagogues, there were bakeries and a kosher restaurant, Benny Hoch’s.

“He was a piece of work,” Finkle said of Hoch. “You would order matza ball soup and he would charge you one price and someone else another price.”

The YMHA near City Hall was where everyone came together — the Germans, Hungarians, and Russians — for social and sporting activities. 

“Like a lot of Jewish communities after they moved out, many stayed in the area and became a kernel of Jewish activity in their new communities in the suburbs of Mercer County and across the river in Bucks County,” said Finkle. 

Other attending the meeting also had fond memories of Trenton.

“Trenton was fantastic,” said Anne Daitz of Lawrenceville. “Market Street had all the Jewish stores. You could walk downtown at night.”

Her maternal grandparents owned Haveson’s Clothes, while her father’s family owned a car dealership. 

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