Leading a synagogue that once held its High Holy Day services on a member’s farm, it’s no surprise that Rabbi Gerald Zelizer reaches for an agricultural metaphor to describe the success of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen.
“Synagogues depend on deep roots, like trees,” said Zelizer, who has been with the congregation 40 years. “When synagogues have deep roots like that, there is a greater pride for the institution and greater menschlichkeit. I have kids in nursery school whose parents I married and whose grandparents I served. We have many third- and fourth-generation families.”
Neve Shalom is celebrating those roots this year, 75 years after its founding by a handful of families in 1928. Last month, three cantors performed at a gala in honor of the milestone anniversary.
The almost 600-family Conservative congregation has been housed since 1954 in its synagogue on Grove Avenue.
Donald Wernik is one of those with deep generational ties. Wernik, 85, a former mayor of Metuchen and former Middlesex County freeholder, has seen five generations of his family belong to Neve Shalom. His grandfather, Morris “Pop” Wernik, was a founder along with Walter K. Nelson, who died several months ago at age 105 and whose descendants also belong to the synagogue.
Jews who would form the backbone of the congregation began moving into the area around the turn of the last century, holding services and celebrations in their homes.
Wernik’s immigrant grandparents had settled in Brooklyn, but came to Metuchen in 1928 after their son, Abraham, had established Wernik’s Pharmacy there two years earlier.
“There were fewer than 12 Jewish families in Metuchen then,” said Wernik. Around 1930 Morris arranged for the rental of Royal Arcanium Hall on Main Street for the High Holy Days and special events.
“My grandfather eventually got it rent-free,” said Wernik. “He was a good businessman. He served as the congregation’s shammes, rabbi, cantor, and fund-raiser. He got a Torah from Perth Amboy.”
The congregation slowly began to grow, and in 1938 Nelson, a research chemist, was elected its first president and Morris Wernik, its treasurer. Max Braunstein, congregation secretary, owned a chicken farm on Vineyard Road in what is now Edison.
When the growing congregation needed new quarters, Morris was able to get a house on Highland Avenue with help from department store owner Edward Kramer.
“The building was in total disrepair, and we only had $68 in the treasury, but Mr. Kramer advanced us the rest,” said Wernik. “When you walked into the living room you had to be careful you didn’t end up in the cellar. I remember helping my grandfather clean up the place.”
In 1941 the congregation obtained a charter and became the Metuchen Jewish Community Center, forming a sisterhood and Sunday religious school. A student from the Jewish Theological Seminary was hired to conduct Shabbat and holiday services.
In 1946, Wernik and other young soldiers came home after the war and membership quickly grew so large new facilities were again needed. The congregation moved to a building at 22 Center St., which soon became home to a Hadassah chapter, adult education classes, a choir, a weekday religious school, and a Young Judaea chapter.
Families poured into the Metuchen area from Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Plainfield, Newark, and New York, and by 1953 the center again outgrew its facility. After hiring its first full-time rabbi, Charles Abeles, Morris Wernik and Nelson set out on a fund-raising campaign that brought in $35,000.
On March 13, 1954, the current building was dedicated as Temple Neve Shalom Metuchen Edison Jewish Center. Abeles was followed by Rabbi Phineas Kadushin (1957-58) and Hershel Matt, who served until Zelizer took over in 1970. The first cantor, Ben Stein, came in 1960 followed by Mordechai Goldstein, who served until 2001. The current cantor, Sheldon Levin, also serves as education director.
In 2003 the synagogue merged with Congregation Ohev Shalom in Colonia, and three years later was joined by Congregation Adath Israel from Woodbridge, bringing with them new members, Torah scrolls, endowments, and a history of Woodbridge Township’s Jewish community.
Throughout its history, said Zelizer, Neve Shalom has always forged a path that enriched Jewish knowledge and broadened outreach, becoming one of the first Conservative synagogues in the state to go egalitarian.