Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the farmers from the areas surrounding Bordentown would come to the town to sell their produce and do their shopping. Many of the store owners they did business with were Jews, and evidently such a presence that from 1874 to 1877, Moses Wolf, a Jewish tailor and clothing store owner, served as Bordentown’s mayor.
By 1917 the Jewish community had grown sufficiently for locals Hyman Goldman, George Groveman, Joseph Josephson, and Max Kessler to form the Bordentown Hebrew Association. In July of 1918 the fledgling congregation purchased the double house at 58-60 Crosswicks to establish their synagogue, which was eventually named Temple B’nai Abraham; the same building still houses a small chapel, office and meeting space, and a rabbi’s residence.
“It’s really a community more than just a temple,” said Rhea Goldman, of West Trenton, who served as copresident of the sisterhood. Noting that some of her best friends are from the synagogue, she added, “It’s just a very, very close group of people, with a variety of ages. People are always very welcome.”
Looking back from the vantage of a century, and testifying to Bordentown’s agrarian roots, resident Randye Bloom, past president of both the congregation and its sisterhood, recalled a memory shared 30 years ago by longtime member Bea Busch at the synagogue’s 70th anniversary. Busch had said that in the early years a “chicken flicker” would come to the temple on Friday mornings. “He would shochet [slaughter] the chickens, and the women would come to the back of the synagogue and pick up the chickens for the Sabbath,” said Bloom.
Initially most services were led by laypeople, but by the 1950s, itinerant or student rabbis would officiate, at first one weekend a month. Then Temple B’nai Abraham established a part-time rabbinical position, usually drawing on third-year rabbinical students, first Conservative and then Reconstructionist, who would stay two years and live in the house next door. Reconstructionist Rabbi Julie Pfau, who started as a student rabbi, has now served the temple for 10 years. Membership has hovered around 55 families for many years.
In honor of its centennial, B’nai Abraham is holding a year-long series of celebratory events which began with a party on Oct. 29. Next up, the entire Bordentown community will be invited to a Chanukah latke brunch on Sunday, Dec. 10, to celebrate the milestone, and the congregation has published its third cookbook in commemoration of the anniversary (it’s available for $15 from Randye Bloom, 609-298-6485).
Current B’nai Abraham president Brian Epstein, who lives in Hamilton, came to the congregation in 2003. He had married a Catholic woman and decided that he wanted “to learn more about my faith and join a synagogue.”
“You hear the same story here over and over in this synagogue,” Epstein said about testimonials lauding the warm welcome the congregation extends to interfaith families.
Goldman, a B’nai Abraham member since 1972, agreed. “We have always been a very inclusive congregation,” she said. “We’ve always welcomed people of mixed marriages. We’ve always wanted more people to come. We’ve never turned anyone away.”
The welcoming of interfaith families has extended to burials. In 1989 or 1990, B’nai Abraham came up with a solution that followed Jewish law but enabled interfaith couples to be buried next to each other. “We designated all the perimeter plots around our section of the cemetery and sold them to intermarried couples,” explained then-president Bloom; “the Jewish person was buried on our side, the non-Jewish person on the other.” This allowed Louis Rosenberg, a Scottish Orthodox Jew, who came to the United States in 1963 at age 51 and joined B’nai Abraham, to be buried next to his Roman Catholic wife, Ellen Hughes Rosenberg.
Members also emphasized the synagogue’s warmth and strong sense of community. “In other synagogues and churches, you sit there and don’t want to look at the person next to you,” Epstein said. But at B’nai Abraham, when new people visit, “this synagogue is in your face — ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Can we set up a play date?’ And, more often than not, ‘Do you want to join the board?’”
Epstein said he joined B’nai Abraham for the “caring nature of the people who are here, people I can lean on when I’m having trouble in life and people who can lean on me. The open and accepting nature of people here just warms your heart and makes you want to be part of something.”
Volunteerism is also a major force at B’nai Abraham. For Robbinsville resident Charlie Weiss, a six-year B’nai Abraham president who stepped down last year, “the thing that has always set this synagogue apart is that we’ve always had student teachers.” His two sons, now 15 and 17, have both been teaching two-hour sessions, twice a week, through their high school years.
Recalling the “forced atmosphere” and large classes of his own childhood, Weiss said, “There’s something to be said for having individual prayers, the Hebrew alphabet, and holidays relayed to you by a peer.”
Members recalled activities they have been especially proud of over the years that define their congregation: delivering food prepared by Crosswicks Friends Meeting to the homeless housed in local hotels; resettling a Soviet Jewish family (the wife, Yelena Masoti, is still a member); bringing residents of the now-closed E.R. Johnstone Training and Research Center — a facility that housed people with developmental disabilities — to services; installing a chairlift up to the sanctuary; and providing simulcasts of services on the ground floor. Affiliating with the Reconstructionist movement in 2000 was a landmark for the congregation.
Native Trentonian and former B’nai Abraham president Ray Cantor, who lives in Hamilton Township, recalled his first impressions of B’nai Abraham 25 years ago, when he and his non-Jewish wife attended their first Friday night service, “It’s not a conventional-looking synagogue,” he said. “It’s quirky. You have to have a special taste for it. It’s not showy — it’s comfortable.”
“I feel like one of the newcomers because the place has been so stable a community,” Cantor said. “It still remains what it has always been — a welcoming, family-friendly place that brings people together. There’s no pretension and no petty issues going on; it’s all about spiritualism, Judaism, and community.”
“We felt like family from day one,” Cantor said, “and we kept going back.”