It was about 50 years ago when a group of farmers in the Franklin Township section of Somerset converted a pair of chicken coops to form the Davidson Avenue Hebrew Congregation.
Today the farms and synagogue have been replaced by office buildings and hotels, but the congregation, renamed Temple Beth El of Somerset, continues to thrive in its present location on Hamilton Street, where it moved in 1967.
“It was a tiny place with one room,” recalled Lois Altschul, who with her husband, Howard, is a founding member. “For several years we worshiped in a chicken coop, but as Franklin Township grew and the number of Jewish residents increased it became evident the existing facility could not accommodate us.”
The area around the original congregation was home to a number of Jewish farmers who settled there in the 1920s and ’30s. Many had moved on by 1962, but other Jewish residents were rapidly moving into the growing suburb.
With a new influx of members, a youth group and Hebrew school, which held two Sunday classes at the Pine Grove School, were established. In 1964, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Conservative movement and became part of the network of synagogues in the region of what was then the Jewish Federation of Raritan Valley.
“It was a lot of hard work by so many individuals,” said Altschul. “We had no backup money, but we all pitched in to create a synagogue. It was very complicated in those days because we always seemed to be short of money, but there was tremendous dedication to create a community where one never existed.”
As the congregation continued to attract members, enrollment in religious school rose from 13 to 50 students by 1965, when the synagogue held its first bar mitzva service.
With a $10,000 pledge from the sisterhood kicking off its building campaign, the congregation purchased its current site, holding a ground-breaking ceremony in December 1966. High Holy Day services were held the following September for the first time in the new building.
In 2006, the synagogue completed a $1.5 million overhaul and expansion, including a renovation of its sanctuary in memory of Sheryl Rosner Rosenberg, a young mother who grew up in the congregation and died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A young rabbi
Phyllis Miller describes herself as “one of the pioneers” who joined the synagogue more than 40 years ago with her husband, Kalman. Both served as president and she is now sisterhood vice president.
“All the children would go to Friday night services,” said Miller. “Friday night we were just packed with kids. I remember Rabbi Martin Schlussel would have all the kids come and sit on the steps.”
Ironically, because there are now five adult communities in Somerset, the synagogue’s demographics have turned around.
“About half of the congregation is over 65 and while we always get a minyan on Friday nights, we get many more people during the day,” said Miller.
Scott Fink, a lifelong member who chaired the Dec. 8 dinner-dance celebrating the golden anniversary, said one of his fondest memories was Shabbat afternoons when Schlussel, over cake, taught groups of young people how to lead services.
Over five decades, the synagogue has had only four religious leaders, including its current rabbi, Eli Garfinkel, who came eight years ago and guided the congregation into egalitarianism.
“It’s always nice to have an older congregation with a young rabbi,” said Miller. “We appreciate the enthusiasm and dynamism of a young rabbi.”
The feeling is mutual for Garfinkel, who said the 160-family congregation “has a lot of energy and a lot of people who will volunteer for work.”
“It’s not that I have volunteered them,” he said. “They have come forward on their own.”
The synagogue no longer has a youth group, but does run a Hebrew school, and a pre-Kadima program jointly with Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick. Along with adult education programs, Beth El offers a Hazak program for seniors and holds morning services on Thursday.
“This is what has sustained them all these years,” said Garfinkel. “We welcome newcomers and those newcomers become part of our larger family. We have people who come on the High Holy Days who have known each other for decades. This synagogue really feels like family.”
Quite literally, at least for Altschul. Her husband served as president and their three children grew up and became b’nei mitzva there. She now has an eight-year-old granddaughter enrolled in the Beth El religious school.
“It’s kind of neat to think this is the third generation of Beth El congregants in our family,” she said.