When a wrecking crew razed the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island on Feb. 28, the demolition marked not the demise of the only synagogue along the coast between Brigantine to the south and Toms River to the north, but a first step in what congregation leaders envision as a vibrant future.
In its place, a new house of worship will be erected, more than three times the size of the original, to accommodate the growing Jewish community on LBI — the 18-mile-long barrier island and summer colony that stretches along the Ocean County coastline.
Only about 10 percent of its 280 member families live on LBI year-round, but the new construction is the result of a unified volunteer effort of congregants near and far. Year-round LBI resident Jeff Shapiro chairs the project. From her winter residence in Hilton Head, SC, Rose Valentine chairs publicity and the capital campaign. Edward Dreyfus, who divides his time between LBI and Silver Spring, Md., spearheaded the construction plans.
Harold Farin of Holmdel chairs the transition team, whose job it is to document and find storage space for the many items that will be moved into the new structure. Sherry Fruchterman of Watchung is overseeing the interior design of the new building.
The congregants look forward to reuniting in their new home when construction is completed, which, according to plans, will be in time for the High Holy Days.
The JCC is led by part-time religious leader Rabbi Jacob S. Friedman, who splits his residence between Jackson and a temple-owned duplex opposite the JCC site.
The new building will rise on the same location as the old: on East 24th Street in the tiny town of Spray Beach, going south from the causeway — the island’s only land access — and north of Beach Haven. In the meantime, services and programs are being held at locales around the island. Friday night services are held at a Catholic church, where crosses and statues are covered to accommodate the “traditional egalitarian” congregation. Sunday school classes are held in the rabbi’s home. The JCC’s main office has been relocated to the Beach Haven law offices of the late Julius Robinson, a longtime temple member originally from Lakewood.
“We even found a temporary home for our weekly mah-jongg games at the local library in Surf City, which is free and open to the community,” said Valentine.
Managing the project remotely makes her even more homesick for LBI, she said. She recently drove eight hours from South Carolina to Boca Raton, Fla., to join about 20 other JCC of LBI women at an annual luncheon, where the snowbirds reminisced about summers at the Jersey Shore. Valentine, who lived most of her adult life in Livingston, worked for the Holocaust Council of MetroWest on the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany for five years.
Shabbat on the beach
Oceanfront living makes Jewish experiences at the JCC unique, especially in the summer, said Valentine, with many Shabbat celebrations revolving around the beach. “When you have a house on LBI, it usually means you have a lot of summertime guests. We host kabalat Shabbat on the beach, which attracts up to 150 people.”
The original building was dedicated on July 31, 1951, thanks to contributions of land and funds by the family of Herbert Shapiro, builders who helped develop LBI in the 1950s.
The construction of its new home will mark the start of the congregation’s second half-century. Plans are under way for a 50th anniversary celebration on July 31 at a local yacht club (leaders originally hoped the building might be ready in time for the gala). The event will include a video tribute to some of the founders, including the Shapiro, Josephson, Snyder, and Starr families.
Plans to upgrade the facility in one way or another, said leaders, are long overdue. The 2,000-square-foot building was in dire need of renovations for years, with exterior decay from the salt air, interior mold, tiny bathrooms, closet-sized offices, and an inadequate kitchen, said Valentine. One large room served as both sanctuary and reception hall.
“If we were having a bar mitzva or other event, guests would have to scurry after the service to move tables and convert the room into a banquet hall,” she said. “On the High Holy Days we get around 180 people, but it is so crowded you cannot even walk down the aisle with the Torahs. The bima is so small, you could fall off.”
For the last four years the temple has rented the LBI Foundation of the Arts and Sciences in Loveladies on the north end of the island for High Holy Day services.
The two-year capital campaign has raised $1.15 million, with an additional $450,000 loaned to the temple by several members to complete the venture. The new building — designed by Craig W. Brearley Architect in Manahawkin with Bannett Group LLC, Cherry Hill, as general contractor — will be 8,000 square feet, designed in a beach motif, with sand-colored Jerusalem stone, and stark white walls accented with pale blue. The stained-glass windows from the original structure will be placed in an ascending pattern on the east wall of the sanctuary, so that when the sun rises over the ocean two blocks away, light will stream in gradually.
“Before the reconstruction, you could barely even see the JCC when you drove by,” said Fruchterman. “The new facility will make a wonderful statement and be a source of pride for the whole island.”
“Everyone is coalescing and feeling the warmth this will create within us as a congregation,” Dreyfus said. “We have a congregation that’s dynamic and active and this new structure will enhance that dynamic well into the future.”