Perth Amboy, once home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in the state, has in recent years watched the last vestiges of Jewish life disappear.
Since an exodus began in the 1950s, the once more than 5,000-strong community — comprising about 15 percent of the city’s population — has dwindled to a handful of mostly elderly Jews.
Gone are the kosher butcher shops and Jewish-owned stores that once dotted the downtown. The YMHA of Perth Amboy, once the center of community activity, closed in 2003 after 103 years. There used to be five congregations in Perth Amboy; now there’s one. The city’s last Orthodox synagogue, 108-year-old Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, closed its doors several months ago — though there are members who are taking legal action to block the official closure. The lone remaining shul in operation, the 114-year-old Conservative congregation Beth Mordecai — whose members come mostly from nearby towns — will have to make some serious decisions about its direction in the near future.
“I don’t think anybody needs a crystal ball to see the demographics in Perth Amboy are not what they used to be,” said Beth Mordecai president Michael Gast. “We are actively trying to solicit new members but we are also exploring other alternatives, including possibly a merger.
“But, nothing is written in stone and we are still hopeful we will be able to increase our membership and be able to continue. There’s a lot of history here.”
That history is about to be retold in a book whose author, Robert Spector, grew up in Perth Amboy. The writer, who now lives in Seattle, has already penned a history of mom and pop businesses in America inspired by his childhood in the town. He said his as-yet-untitled history of its Jewish community is due out next March.
Among those contributing to the effort is Marilyn Millet Goldberg of Monroe, a 1954 graduate of Perth Amboy High School, who said she has been researching the history of the community for 10 years and is part of Friends of Perth Amboy Jewish History, Inc.
Goldberg, who grew up in Congregation Beth Israel — which merged with Shaarey Tefiloh in the early 1970s — has been delving into the story of Perth Amboy’s Jews with the help of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey. The project fell through, but was revived several years ago by a 15-person team of volunteer researchers, former residents led by Dr. Mona Shangold of Moorestown.
“It was just the most wonderful Jewish community in which to grow up,” said Goldberg, whose grandfather was a founding member of Beth Israel. “We had Jewish sororities. The center of our lives was the Y and shopping on Smith Street.”
“It was almost like a Camelot for Jews,” agreed Spector. “Like Camelot, it was just this wonderful period that existed for a short period of time that is no more.”
Spector’s parents owned a butcher shop and outdoor market.
“The irony was my father sold nonkosher meat, but we were kosher so we did not eat the meat my father sold,” said Spector. There were about five kosher shops in the city.
So many of the business owners serving residents who worked in the then flourishing oil, gas, and asphalt industry were Jewish that Smith Street, the city’s main artery, was virtually shuttered on the High Holy Days.
Spector said writing the book is “a labor of love”; he is grateful, he added, for the help he has received from other former community members who have done years of research and who formed the nonprofit Friends of Perth Amboy Jewish History to cover printing costs.
A ‘wonderful period’
Shep Sewitch, 90, is a lifelong resident. Part of the five-member presidium at Shaarey Tefiloh, he recalled gathering at the Y, with its swimming pool, two bowling alleys, ping pong and billiard rooms, auditorium, and gymnasium.
“We had basketball games every Sunday night where we played other Ys and the place was filled with people,” he said. “There was dancing between halves. But when Milton Berle came on television on Sunday nights, that was the end of Sunday night basketball.”
Sewitch, who estimated there are only 12-15 Jews left in the city, said that most of the young Jews who served in World War II did not return to the city, settling instead in nearby suburbs, “and we just lost our Jewish population.”
The Perth Amboy Jewish community had thrived in an atmosphere where Orthodox and Conservative Jews intermingled. There was little anti-Semitism in the ethnically diverse immigrant city.
Goldberg recalled everyone was welcomed at all synagogues. As a teen she and her friends would meet on the High Holy Days and walk from Shaarey Tefiloh to nearby Beth Israel and back. The group was also known to come to Beth Mordecai for Shabbat. Some members of the Orthodox shuls were not Orthodox in practice, but stayed because they were the synagogues of their parents and grandparents.
Goldberg became a bat mitzva with her class at Beth Israel, something she acknowledged “was really out there” for an Orthodox synagogue in that era.
Shangold, like her parents, was born in Perth Amboy and grew up in the Shaarey Tefiloh community, where her fondest memories are of playing ball in the rooftop garden of the Y. She would head downstairs where the Orthodox community ran an independent afternoon Hebrew school four days a week. Beth Mordecai had its own Hebrew school.
The 64-year-old Shangold is a gynecologist like her father, Jack, who had a practice in Perth Amboy for many years and served as president of the YMHA and Perth Amboy Jewish Community Council.
“Every holiday every seat was always filled,” she said of Shaarey Tefiloh. “No one then could have ever imagined a time there would be no Jews in Perth Amboy.”
Congregation Beth Mordecai is working hard to keep that from happening.
Rabbi Melinda Zalma said the synagogue’s membership stands at 80-85 families and it has managed to lure some new members because of its low $600 annual fee. Since taking over about five years ago, she has instituted additional programming and adult education, which has brought in some new faces. But, she added, it has not had a youth group or Hebrew school for some years.