Originally incorporated during the Great Depression as a mostly Jewish agricultural and industrial cooperative, the borough of Roosevelt is still a mighty good place to live, says Michael L. Ticktin, the municipal historian and a member of the borough council.
As recently as 2006, he said, New Jersey Monthly magazine described Roosevelt as the No. 1 place to live in the Garden State.
Ticktin, an attorney who retired from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs in 2011, will explain what makes his hometown special on Sunday, Dec. 7, when he presents “The History and Architecture of Roosevelt” at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, in Freehold.
The presentation will include a talk by Ticktin and a video, Jersey Homesteads: In the Architectural Vanguard, filmmaker Ben Johnson’s portrait of the progressive suburban planning and modernist architecture of what was originally called Jersey Homesteads, as well as the intertwined histories of the American leftist movement and the New York Jewish community.
The program is a tie-in with the museum’s current exhibit, “Jersey Homesteads to Roosevelt: An Experiment in Cooperative Living,” which opened on Oct. 26 and is expected to run until next spring.
Significant help for the exhibit came from two of the town’s residents — Helen Barth, 80, who has lived in Roosevelt for almost her entire life, and Naomi Brahinsky, who was instrumental in securing loans of artwork from contemporary artists who continue to work in the borough.
Ticktin praised the museum for doing an “excellent job” of presenting the story of Roosevelt. “This is an important part of the Jewish experience in Monmouth County,” he said in an e-mail exchange.
Ticktin said Jersey Homesteads was the brainchild of Benjamin Brown, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who wanted to establish Jewish agricultural cooperative communities where secular Jewish culture could flourish. Brown, whose birth name was Lipshitz, leaped at the opportunity afforded under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal by the Subsistence Homesteads Program in 1933.
“Brown was living on his farm in East Windsor and had the idea of getting federal funding to establish a community for Jewish garment workers who would work both in a cooperative factory and on a cooperative farm,” Ticktin said.
After delays and transfer of the program to the Resettlement Administration in the Department of Agriculture, the community was built under the direction of architect Alfred Kastner. He was assisted by Louis Kahn, who was later to become a major figure in 20th-century American architecture. “The first residents moved into the new houses in July 1936,” said Ticktin.
In 1937, it separated from Millstone Township and became the Borough of Jersey Homesteads. In 1945, following FDR’s death, residents voted to rename the borough in his honor.
At its founding, “Jersey Homesteads was overwhelmingly Jewish, since the members of the cooperative had been recruited through Jewish labor organizations and the Yiddish press,” said Ticktin.
Today the population of Roosevelt is only about 15 percent Jewish.
In the 1930s, designating communities for specific ethnic and religious groups by the government was apparently considered quite acceptable. “Lest anyone think that Jews were getting privileged treatment,” Ticktin said, “it should be remembered that it was common practice — until the Supreme Court ruled them to be unenforceable — for restrictive covenants to bar Jews, as well as non-whites, from purchasing homes in many suburbs.”
Ticktin said the architecture reflects the Bauhaus school of design. Flat roofs are the most distinctive feature, affording more light to upper floors; eliminating wooden rafters, which might catch fire; and allowing use of the rooftop space for a garden or children’s play area.
The museum’s exhibit notes that religious life was not a priority for most of the early secular-leaning settlers, even though they shared a Jewish cultural heritage and many of them had Yiddish as a first language.
Nevertheless, a small congregation was formed, initially meeting in rented quarters at many of the structures around town. It was not until 1956 that the synagogue, by then known as Congregation Anshei Roosevelt, gained its own building.
Today, a museum display declares, “The Roosevelt synagogue is the only house of worship in the town, making Roosevelt the only community in the United States with a synagogue as its one house of worship.”