At a brunch at the Pine Brook Jewish Center on Feb. 21, congregants were reminiscing about the small group of Orthodox farmers who, in 1896, started what would become the first synagogue in Morris County.
Lena and Josef Konner were among the first to move to the area from Newark, taking advantage of a grant from the German-Jewish financier Baron Maurice de Hirsch to help immigrant Jews establish themselves in agriculture.
As soon as a critical mass of Jews followed, the Konners started Chevra Agudas Achim Anshy with 35 families.
The brunch kicked off PBJC’s 120th anniversary celebration, which will culminate in a gala dinner in May.
“It’s a way of looking back and seeing the richness of the congregation — how it started as a small farming community, part of the Baron de Hirsch farming grants, and then became a small township,” said Rabbi Mark Finkel.
“In some ways, part of the personality is still small town and as a distant suburb of New York,” he added.
The closeness and warmth that characterized the early years of the congregation became a signature of the community for many decades, as the progeny of the founding families married each other and remained in the community. Even today they return to be buried in the section of the cemetery donated by an early member.
Although most of the agricultural history of the Jewish and larger community has mostly faded away, there are still glimpses — like the Bader Farm. Its farm stand has been on Changebridge Road since 1955, and still offers fresh fruits and vegetables as the farm has since 1892. Ivan Bader, a fourth-generation resident, runs the stand with his wife Jean and their children. He is still a member of the synagogue.
Speaking with some of the members who have always been the ones to step up when needed, serving as president of the congregation or sisterhood, reveals how sudden and sometimes dramatic demographic shifts have affected the synagogue and its membership.
At first the congregation met in the Konners’s home. (And because they found that Lena cooked better than Josef farmed, they transformed their property, first into a boarding house, then into the first kosher hotel in the area.) It served as the synagogue headquarters until the first building was erected in 1912 on Changebridge Road.
By the 1960s when Jory Schlenger, a past president, joined, it was still a small congregation of “40 or 50” families.
“At that time the congregation was very close, maybe because there were fewer people,” Schlenger said. “The rabbi was Orthodox, the congregation was older. People were maintaining tradition more.”
In 1962 they jettisoned the old name in favor of Pine Brook Jewish Center, and by all accounts, it was by then nominally Orthodox, with congregants leaning more Conservative — albeit traditional — than Orthodox. In 1972 they affiliated with the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. They were still in the original building, but had completed two of three expansions (1950 and 1964; the next one would come in 1973).
In 1979, the congregation rejected plans for a fourth expansion and instead decided to move. The new building was completed in time for the High Holy Days in 1982.
When Ray Feldman joined in in 1977, he loved the congregation, but not the building. “It was old and having some problems,” he said. Pointing to a plain, small, portable ark sitting with other relics at the brunch, he said, “That ark is from the old synagogue. It’s not so inspiring.”
Feldman called the new building “a revelation.”
“The first time I came into this new building, it was awesome,” he said. “I loved the fact that they had cushion benches instead of wood pews. And the way it’s constructed — you look up and see it looks like a temple! You just look around and it gives you a feeling of serenity, and calm. You can sit and think.”
For some of those who had been there longer, like Schlenger, the move was harder “because of sentimentality,” Schlenger said. “You get used to something.”
Schlenger had hoped for another expansion of the old building, perhaps adding a second floor. But he acknowledged the soundness of the decision. “It turned out well because we had a large increase in membership,” he said.
The membership committee continued its practice of going out to people’s homes and asking them to join.
Betty Crane, who also joined in 1977 and served as sisterhood president in 1982, recalled that someone from the membership committee “literally came to our home with the membership application. All the young people were members — he made sure we joined.”
Women’s roles at the synagogue changed significantly in the 1980s, both on the bima and in other ways.
Rabbi Asher Krief, who led the synagogue from 1974 until 2001, instituted the adult bat mitzva in the early 1980s, and attracted large groups for the first several years.
Heddy Belman was among the first women to take on High Holy Day haftara readings. “Sam Schneider did the haftara on the second day of Rosh Hashana for decades,” she said. “I was the third ever to do it on the High Holy Days.” She recalled being anxious because she was sitting next to Schneider. But, she said, “After I did it, he stood up and shook my hand. That was a huge transformation.”
Social changes also affected the sisterhood. Crane, who was sisterhood president in 1982 (also the year she celebrated her own adult bat mitzva) recalled that its meetings would regularly attract 80 members. To accommodate working women, the meeting times were changed from daytime to evenings and Sunday brunch.
The congregation changed profoundly during the 1990s. The completion of Route 287, enabling a commute from the area in any direction, brought large numbers into the township and the congregation. A 1994 merger with Lake Hiawatha Jewish Center brought another 150 new members to PBJC’s nearly 200.
Nancy Tuckman, who joined in 1995, was a newer kind of member, more integrated into the larger community. Her ties to the congregation, created largely through her children’s preschool experiences, remained critical, however. “As our kids grew up, we’d see each other on the soccer fields and at bar mitzvas,” she said. “The way the kitchen is the center of the house, this is the center of the community.”
That influx led to a final 1998 expansion, but also a rabbinic change. “Younger people gravitated toward us,” said Feldman. Krief, now rabbi emeritus, stepped down in 2001, and after several years of interim rabbis, in 2007 the congregation hired Rabbi Finkel, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1979.
The congregation’s membership peaked in 2010 at 500 families, and has dropped to about 425.
Current president Jonathan Cohen thinks the community is up to the challenges it now faces. The community is less connected and more secular, he said. As a result, “We’re doing new things — we’re having celebrations and speakers to bring the congregation together in a way we haven’t seen in a while. We want it to feel warm and welcoming so it draws people in.”
He added, “We need to reinvent ourselves. But hopefully, this is the kickoff of another 120 years.”