Unable to draw a minyan and with little hope of attracting Jews back to the city, Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, the last remaining Orthodox synagogue in Perth Amboy, closed several months ago after 108 years.
Several people, however, are trying to stop the sale of the building through legal action, although a contents sale was held Oct. 23.
The synagogue, which once boasted a membership of 800 families and was internationally renowned for its striking Byzantine design and illustrious rabbis and cantors — including Hirsch Chazin, who served as cantor from 1920 to 1975 — became a victim of the flight of Jews to the suburbs.
Four members of the congregation’s five-person presidium voted to close after “an overwhelming majority” of its membership voted last December to shutter the shul, which was “losing money hand over fist,” said presidium member Shep Sewitch. Membership had shrunk to 25 mostly elderly individuals.
It was in 1891 that the First Perth Amboy Mutual Aid Society began holding services in members’ homes. Growing rapidly, they purchased a building on Elm Street and incorporated in 1903 as Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, erecting its Madison Avenue structure with 300 member families.
“It’s a sad thing we have to close this shul, but we have no more Jews left in Perth Amboy,” Sewitch said. “There are no more young Jewish families and no Jewish children.” The 90-year-old lifelong city resident and his brother Bill, also a presidium member, are retired contractors. A year after the original synagogue was destroyed in a massive fire in 1975, they built a new one on the corner of Market and Water streets.
Sewitch said the synagogue has an interested buyer for the property, but no contract has been reached.
However, Herschel Chomsky of Perth Amboy, the only presidium member to vote against the sale, told NJJN he took legal action because he believed the move was in violation of synagogue bylaws and Jewish law. Joining the action were his sister, Zephyr, of Edison and Dr. Alan Goldsmith. The Chomskys are the children of Rabbi Aaron Chomsky, who served at the shul from 1983 to 1992. Goldsmith grew up in Perth Amboy and is founder and president of the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center there.
Chomsky said the group sought to block the contents sale because a yeshiva formerly located in Roosevelt is interested in renting it and covering its maintenance expenses.
The potential buyer for the synagogue is the Science of Spirituality, whose website says it is an Indian-based nonprofit dedicated to spiritual meditation and service to others.
Herschel Chomsky claimed that after an Oct. 19 hearing before Judge Frank Ciuffani in Middlesex Superior Court, he got the impression the contents sale had been canceled. He said he was only informed the evening of Oct. 22 that the sale was back on. He vowed to continue the legal fight.
Shep Sewitch, however, said he thought the judge had found the case to be “groundless.”
NJJN received an anonymously forwarded link to an article appearing in the Lakewood Scoop, which serves the fervently Orthodox community, that said religious leaders there were backing those opposed to the shul’s closure. It claimed they had received a ruling from an unnamed beit din, or Jewish court, stating it would be a mitzva to take such legal action.
Dr. Mona Shangold grew up at Shaarey Tefiloh, where her parents and grandparents were active. The 64-year-old Moorestown resident, who is part of a group of volunteers researching and recording the history of the city’s Jewish community, lamented the synagogue’s demise, but said it was the right move.
“It takes a lot of courage to close a synagogue that so many people feel such great nostalgia for and for which so many people remained hopeful there would be some magic event, but it would be irresponsible to do anything else,” said Shangold. “No one wants to face the end of an era, but not doing so would place the synagogue in a terrible financial situation. There are too many insurmountable problems.”
Sewitch, who continued going to the synagogue every morning and has overseen repairs during the last five months, said a remaining concern is over the care of its two cemeteries in Fords and Perth Amboy.
“Once we sell the building we hope to have enough to maintain them in perpetuity,” he said. “We need to find an organization to take over our cemeteries.”