‘Little synagogue that could’ marks anniversary
Described by its longtime former president as “the little synagogue that could,” Congregation Beth-El in Edison has survived membership and economic declines to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
The Conservative shul has never had a membership larger than 140 families, but those members have always pitched in whenever called upon to help their congregation family.
“The thing that stands out about Beth-El is that it is really haimish,” said former president Cyndi Bloom. “Everyone who walks through the door feels welcome.”
The synagogue now has about 80 families, a religious school, a sisterhood, and a men’s club. Although it has no youth group, young people participate in holiday activities and in services.
Bloom has been a member since 1978. She served as president (1991-94) and again for almost six years until this past June. She and her husband, Edward, discovered Beth-El while still living in Rahway and commuted for 10 years before making the move to Edison.
“We just liked the people and the community,” said Bloom. “Both my sons were bar mitzva’d there. We have friends there. We just stayed because there’s no place else we wanted to be. We’ve been through four rabbis and each one was better than the last. We don’t have a lot of money but we accommodate everybody.”
Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, religious leader for the last 23 years, noted that the synagogue remodeled its exterior, lobby, and bima over the last several years and undertook some construction projects to benefit the school.
“It’s a very family-oriented place, where I’ve raised a couple of generations of kids,” said Rosenberg. An author of a number of books on the Holocaust and a municipal chaplain in various capacities for Edison, Rosenberg has a lifetime contract. “My greatest pleasure is seeing kids I have trained come back and be able to lead the entire service that I taught them. I hope to see many more years in the congregation.”
Judy Yoblick of Edison, who chaired an anniversary dinner program Dec. 19 sponsored by the men’s club and sisterhood, said that it was especially meaningful when she, as a child of Holocaust survivors, chaired the synagogue’s first Holocaust commemoration program in 1990.
A former president of the sisterhood and congregation, Yoblick called Beth-El “a home away from home where you don’t sit in the back of the room and get ignored.”
Joan Gottlieb of Edison, who has been a member since 1962, acknowledged that “we always struggled even in the best of times.”
But she has nothing but good memories. Those include theatrical productions her late husband appeared in, her three children’s b’nei mitzva services and celebrations, and her grandson’s bar mitzva there last year. Gottlieb also ran the temple’s gift shop for about eight years and helps with the oneg Shabbat every Friday and at bingo every three weeks.
“We’re like one big family,” she added. “When anyone is hurting, we all hurt. When anyone has a simha, we all celebrate.”
One of the ways the synagogue has remained financially viable is by renting part of its facilities to Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, a centrist Orthodox school.
The temple was formed as the Raritan Township Jewish Community Center in 1952 by a group of young married couples living in the Washington Park section of Edison.
Its sisterhood was organized in 1953 with meetings held in the Lincoln School cafeteria. Religious services were scattered and conducted at the town firehouses — Raritan Engine Company No. 1 and No. 2 — and at Linwood Ballroom. In 1954, the renamed Edison Jewish Community Center held High Holy Day services at the Italian-American Club.
The following year services were conducted in a needle factory on Route 27 and Plainfield Avenue and at the autoworkers’ union hall on Vineyard Road. Sunday school was held at the Stelton School; the staff was made up of students from Rutgers and Douglass.
The new congregation purchased the land for its current building on Jefferson Boulevard in 1954 and began construction the following year. In 1956, it hired its first rabbi just out of seminary and the following year acquired its first Torah scroll. In 1958, the synagogue became the Edison Jewish Community Center Congregation Beth-El; a rabbi’s home was built in 1959.
By 1967, Beth-El had grown so much that a 7,500-square-foot addition of classrooms, a kitchen, offices, and meeting rooms was built.
“I’d like to keep going and growing,” Bloom said. “When I first took over as president we didn’t think we’d be here much longer. But here we are 60 years and we’re still standing. We fought very hard to keep it going and as long as I’m still breathing I’m going to keep fighting to make sure we stay.”