During a search for old photos and documents, Steven Solomon came across a ledger containing the minutes of the very first meeting of Cranford-Garwood Hebrew Association on Nov. 1, 1917.
It was on this date that 12 Jewish families living in the area joined together and started meeting in each other’s homes for social events and for worship. Within 10 years they had outgrown their living rooms, and were laying the cornerstone of their first building on South Street in Cranford in 1927, which was completed in 1934. The synagogue, according to its own records, cost $900 per year to maintain, and dues were set at $6 per year. It was 1946 before they were able to hire their first rabbi, Jordan Taxon.
Today that middling congregation is known as Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford.
In the intervening century since that first meeting, the congregation has grown and moved and changed its name at least twice; it has weathered demographic changes, hurricanes, and evolving religious practices; it has created, disbanded, and relaunched a religious school; put on plays and started and restarted choirs; it has raised money through bingo and sisterhood and dinner dances and galas; the congregation was even part of an inter-church bowling league in the 1950s, organized by the Men’s Club.
In 1998, it merged with Suburban Jewish Center Mekor Chayim in Linden, and in more recent years has welcomed both LGBTQ and interfaith families. Membership reached a high in the 1970s of over 400 families, and today the congregation draws its 220 member families from Westfield, Garwood, Roselle Park, and Cranford.
On Sunday, Dec. 18, the community kicked off a year of 100th anniversary celebrations with a family Hanukka party. Children from the religious school made menoras and mezuzot (and dipped donut hole lollipops in chocolate for good measure), the adult and children’s choirs sang, and co-presidents Jackie Baranoff and Elliott Ballen affixed a new mezuza to the sanctuary doors. The focus was on rededicating the building, and the community, for the future.
The congregation is just coming to the close of a transition period, from the short-lived tenure of Rabbi Ben Goldstein, who brought a youthful outlook to the congregation when he arrived in 2010, but left in 2016 and was replaced by interim rabbi David Klatzker. It has also just welcomed back Hazzan Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo,who returned to the congregation after an 11-year absence. While some members left during the transition, the synagogue leaders believe things are looking up.
“More young people are joining, stepping up. And we’re doing great, which show how stable the community is,” said Baranoff.
Rabbi Klatzker told the 75 members who gathered for the kickoff that the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees “offers a vital lesson: That life is less about how to begin than how to begin again.” He said that although beginnings are exciting, “challenges eventually present themselves and enthusiasm stalls. But it’s possible to start again.”
The kickoff celebration was headed by Adam Reissman of Westfield, who joined two years ago with his wife Becca and their two children, Max, 9, and Natalie, 4. “I wanted to be part of positive momentum forward,” he said, explaining why he volunteered to chair the event. “If my stepping up inspires others, so much the better.”
Stories about the warmth of the congregation permeate the membership. Dave Springer, a past president who joined in the 1980s, told NJJN, “We joined because we felt an obligation,” he said. “We did not expect to gain a family.”
Reissman joined after holding a baby naming there. “I was so impressed by how many people came up to me to say congratulations, or mazal tov, who had been in synagogue for a normal routine Shabbat. It was so genuine.”
Many members are second, third, even fourth-generation members from either Beth-El or Mekor Chayim. Baranoff is among these, having grown up at Mekor Chayim (she claims to be the first girl to have read Torah there for a bat mitzvah, hers took place on Dec. 23, 1973, following a “whole tumult”). She understands what makes the congregation tick: volunteerism. “We adore our clergy, but we could run on Dunkin’ Donuts and our cadre of lay leaders,” she said.
Among those who have been volunteering the longest is Kurt Steiner. At 104, he is the oldest member, who joined in 1954 shortly after moving to Cranford from Clifton. (He said he paid $15,400 for the small two-bedroom “cottage” that he still lives in.) At the time the congregation was still housed in its original building on South Street, and he remembers a much smaller community, with a sanctuary that held fewer than 100 people, and “a few” classrooms in the basement. He described the rabbi, the congregation’s third, Rabbi Philip Brand, as “old,” and said that when he left they couldn’t afford to hire another, leaving them with just a rabbinical student on Friday night and Saturday. Eventually, though, in 1957, the congregation hired Rabbi Sidney Shanken, who pushed the members to move to a new building, according to Steiner, who recalled the rabbi organizing a trip to see other synagogues in Linden with new buildings for larger congregations. The cornerstone for the new building, at the current location, was laid in September 1960. “I was here for the groundbreaking,” recalled Steiner. “There were a lot of people. It was very exciting.”
He also remembers the Golden Group, for seniors, which Steiner joined when he retired 40 years ago. At that time, Steiner said, “No other synagogue had such a group. People came from Springfield, Union, Clark. One lady even came from Newark.” The group was so popular they had to limit it to 100 people. “We couldn’t handle any more than that!” he said.
Steiner still comes regularly to minyan, Shabbat services, and events such as the 100th anniversary kickoff. Other members, like David Springer, have taken their inspiration from him. “He always said ‘yes,’” said Springer, recalling Steiner’s volunteer spirit.
Abbie Halperin, who served as the first female president in 1987, remembers that it wasn’t an easy transition for some in the congregation. Some past presidents called her a “little girl” because she was the same age as their daughters. But at 43, she was up to the challenge. “For me, it was fine, but it was not fine for everyone else,” she said. “It was difficult for some past presidents to accept it.” She relied on at least one mentor outside of the synagogue: Judy Lax, who had served as the first female president of her own synagogue in Summit. Halperin said that some of the men set up the chairs for meetings so theirs would be higher than hers. “I wasn’t stupid. I figured it out after one or two meetings,” Halperin said. And such shenanigans lasted only a few weeks. After that, “They saw I could run things and make decisions.”
Members who were at Temple Beth-El before it merged with Congregation Mekor Chayim have only positive words to say about the integration of the slightly older community. Asked about how the culture of the synagogue changed following the merger, Springer said, “They brought menschlichkeit and love of Judaism. The culture got warmer here.”
Halperin added, “When they came in, a marriage took place.” She remembers everything decorated in blue and white, “With balloons and huppas everywhere. It was just a beautiful thing and so easy, like it was meant to be. It was sad for them but they came in to open arms. It wasn’t a money thing. It was just that they needed a home, and we had a home.” The image that stays with her, she said, is “When they came down the street with the Torahs — I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” she said. “They made Beth-El better.”
Over the years there have been other challenges, including Hurricane Irene in August of 2011. Harold Oslick was president at the time and remembers heading over to the synagogue to assess the damage — a foot of water all over the lower level, and three to four feet of water in the youth lounge, located down several stairs from the lower level. “And we quickly found out by the smell that it was not flood water but sewage backup,” he said. Eventually, the water receded, but the whole lower level had to be “decontaminated.” The Hebrew school relocated for more than three months to Congregation Beth Or Beth Torah, and the total cost topped $150,000. But in true TBEMC fashion, he said, members made the necessary donations for the renovations.
As its leaders look ahead to the future, they know they will face their share of challenges, but they have plenty to celebrate. As Halperin pointed out, having served on the New Jersey board of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for nearly 15 years, “I’ve seen merger after merger and closing after closing. To me it really is a victory to be open.” She added, “For me personally knowing that we are still viable — it’s like maybe what I did 30 years ago made a difference.”
The centennial celebration will include a year’s worth of events, including a 100 years of film and literature festival, a casino night, a cantor’s concert, dedication of a donor wall, a family Shabbat and kiddush luncheon, and finally a 100th anniversary gala in November of 2017.
Solomon, the past president and chair of the 100th anniversary who first discovered that ledger, created a rotating exhibit of historical documents and photos to greet every visitor as they enter the synagogue. He said he hasn’t been able to decipher what happened at that first meeting yet — the page has faded dramatically over the years and is barely legible. But he told NJJN that he is determined to succeed, before next year’s gala. It’d be a shame if they had to wait another 100 years.