Congregation Agudath Achim of Bradley Beach has long touted itself as the “best-kept secret on the Jersey Shore.” But as the Orthodox shul celebrates its 90th anniversary, its clergy and leaders are doing everything they can to let out the secret; its success can be measured by the splash it’s making through community outreach and special events.
One such successful happening was the July 22 musical kabalat Shabbat service on the beach. Nearly 60 people attended the event, which featured live music, singing, dancing, and a kiddush on the Bradley boardwalk. The event attracted at least 20 newcomers — not to mention some curious passersby who stopped to watch the festive celebration welcoming the Sabbath.
Situated three blocks from the ocean at 301 McCabe Ave., the synagogue has a very active board and team of volunteers who are working hard to build upon this summer community’s rich history and propel it into the future. Agudath Achim is proud to have once hosted Israeli statesman Abba Eban, and its congregants have included the father of oil magnate Leon Hess.
Agudath Achim is an “Orthodox shul that follows Ashkenazi custom but is open to all Jews regardless of background — and non-Jews if they happen to come by,” said Rabbi Maury Kelman, who serves as religious leader of the congregation, which holds services from the late spring through the summer.
Together with his wife, Peninah, and their three children, Kelman relocated to Bradley Beach in May from Manhattan.
Kelman replaces Rabbi Herbert Bialik, who left the synagogue after 41 years to retire in Israel in 2013. According to Kelman, Bialik and his wife, Florence, are living in the village of Neve Daniel in the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion and are enjoying time with their children and grandchildren who live in Israel.
After Bialik’s departure, summertime shul services were led by Rabbi Daniel Levitt, who now serves as Hillel director at Temple University.
Because of its location “down the shore,” Agudath Achim attracts summer visitors from all over the world. Most of its members come from the Edison/Highland Park area, Springfield, and Teaneck. The beachfront is often incorporated into shul events, such as the July 22 service and a leil Shavuot, an all-night holiday program.
The proximity to the ocean has led to at least one amusing incident. Last Shavuot, a young man visiting from Tzfat, Israel, decided to immerse himself in the local mikva (otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean) — at 3 o’clock in the morning.
“The cop on beach patrol arrested him for indecent exposure and fined him $2,000,” said David Levitt, a longtime board member, current treasurer, and father of the former interim rabbi. “He had to delay his flight back to Israel and get an attorney. In the end, the judge dismissed the charges and reprimanded the officer. The judge asked the cop, ‘Other than you and him, who else was actually out there at 3 a.m.?’”
The congregation prides itself on providing heartfelt hospitality to all who enter, said Kelman. A practicing attorney in New York City, Kelman received his ordination from Yeshiva University, has served as religious leader in congregations in New York and Jerusalem, and has run numerous educational programs in cities in Europe and North America. He is the founder and chair of Kedma, a Jewish student organization, and director of Route 613, an Orthodox conversion-to-Judaism program.
“We hope that everyone who enters our shul will feel comfortable and welcome. We always formally welcome guests,” Kelman said.
That same impulse is evident in relationships outside the synagogue as well. “We’re very happy to have our good neighbor, the Sephardi shul, Magen David Congregation, two blocks away,” said Kelman. “We hope to do some joint programming together, including a cholent/hamim cook-off in August. We also want to be involved in the general community and be a kiddush Hashem to show the true beauty of Judaism.”
The shul’s very active group of volunteers has presented a number of programs to the community, including a Memorial Day veterans’ service, a Yom Yerushalayim-Jerusalem Day event, a Saturday night movie screening, and a lesson on the ethics of the 1976 Entebbe Airport hostage incident and Halacha.
Last Shavuot, the shul sponsored an all-night “Shavuoton” with readings and a discussion — held on the boardwalk — of the Book of Ruth. “It was a very beautiful setting that was very conducive to learning, and we had a nice group show up,” Kelman said. “A non-Jewish resident stopped me in the street later to tell me how nice it looked.”
A number of Kelman’s conversion students participated in the Shavuoton. “I asked members of the community to volunteer to host them for a meal or two, and we had more hosts than we had students able to accept their hospitality,” the rabbi said.
Plans are under way for youth programming on Shabbat and Sundays, and a Mitzvah Day in August that will include a blood, clothing, and food drive.
Many shul members go back three or four generations, said David Levitt. A lifelong summer resident of Bradley — he lives in West Orange the rest of the year — Levitt said his grandmother’s brothers from Newark were among the first Jews to buy houses there in the 1930s.
Bradley Beach’s Jewish community grew considerably between 1940 and 1970, many of them chicken farmers from Vineland or employees of the now-defunct Fort Monmouth military base.
“I would venture to say that every Jew from Newark, Elizabeth, Maplewood, Union, and Passaic has memories of Bradley Beach,” said Levitt. He and his fellow Newark friends “descended on Bradley Beach every weekend. When the train pulled into the station, the conductor would announce that we had arrived at ‘Bagel Beach,’” Levitt recalled.
Popular attractions included the — now closed — Hotel LaReine and a weekly town dance at the boardwalk pavilion. “We came to the dances in crowds so thick that passersby couldn’t get to the boardwalk without literally pushing themselves through,” he said.
The Syrian-Jewish community also began its influx from Brooklyn in the ’70s, building the blue and white shul on Ocean and Fifth avenues, which is currently operated by Eddie Sitt and his sons. Although nearly all members of the community eventually moved to Deal, the shul still holds summer minyans, said Levitt.
Agudath Achim is proud of its long-held open-door policy and looks forward to “sharing the secret” and seeing continued growth each summer. “We get favorable press for our warm welcome, nice kiddush, and single malt scotch,” Levitt said. “You should come and see for yourself.”