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The Jewish Center at 70
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The Jewish Center at 70

A celebration of the past with a look toward the future

Rabbi Joseph Gelberman — the Jewish Center’s first full-time religious leader — who was hired in 1955, leads a service for youngsters in the sukkah in 1958. 
Photos courtesy The Jewish Center
Rabbi Joseph Gelberman — the Jewish Center’s first full-time religious leader — who was hired in 1955, leads a service for youngsters in the sukkah in 1958. Photos courtesy The Jewish Center

The Jewish Center of Princeton, for many years the only synagogue in town, has always drawn its members from a diverse population. Since it adopted its first constitution, in December 1949, its congregants were looking for many different things.

Founding members Marge Horowitz and her husband, Milton, for example, were secular Jews who “envisioned a Jewish center more like a Jewish Y,” she told NJJN.

“We were proud of our Jewish heritage — the literature, music, culture, and traditions — but … we were not observant; we were secular. We were very Jewish,” Horowitz said, but they had no interest in religion.

The Jewish Center’s progenitor was B’nai Zion, an Orthodox congregation formed in 1926. But the influx of Jewish assistant professors and instructors to Princeton University after World War II demanded a more inclusive and wide-ranging congregation.

Over time the Jewish Center did develop primarily as a religious institution, and a rabbi, cantor, and Sunday school teacher were hired. And although for Horowitz this path meant the Jewish Center did not conform to her own beliefs and needs, she remained a member. “If this meets the needs of most Jews,” she said she told herself, “it is incumbent on me to support it.”

As the Jewish Center marks its 70th anniversary with a celebration on Saturday evening, Sept. 14, it still draws members not only from across the religious range, but from varying cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as a spectrum of gender identities.

Galia Nicole Abramson celebrates becoming her bat mitzvah at the Jewish Center in October 2002, with her parents, Bernard and Barbara, and brother, Louis.

While Rabbi Adam Feldman feels the anniversary is a time to celebrate the Jewish Center’s diversity, he acknowledged that such diversity does bring challenges. “How do we blend just enough and maintain our own uniqueness while honoring, learning from, and respecting difference?”

For immediate past president Linda Meisel, another aspect of diversity is active involvement and connections across the generations. For her, that represents one important goal of the celebration and is captured by the 70th anniversary logo, “Honor Our Legacy, Build Our Future.”

“The founding members built the community,” Meisel told NJJN. “We” — meaning her generation — “have sustained it. We’re not going away, but it’s important that the next generation step up.”

Reflecting on what brought Meisel and her husband, Arthur, back when the synagogue was only 30 years old, she said, “We were looking around for a spiritual home, a community.” And that’s exactly what the young couple found: “a group of people to be connected to that enriched our lives both by membership in the Jewish Center as well as many lifelong relationships.”

Cantor (now also Rabbi) Robert Freedman leads Friday morning “Shira” (singing) in a preschool classroom. He started at the Jewish Center in 1982 during his second year of cantorial school and stayed until 1996.

The Meisels were also part of a group of parents who founded the Jewish Center’s preschool, which brought many young families to the synagogue (it closed in 2016). “We did everything from building the playgrounds to raising the money,” she said. Arthur Meisel served as congregation president in 1984, and both Meisels have been instrumental in planning, organizing, and raising funds for the anniversary celebration.

For Linda Meisel, this ethos of “doing” is critical to building and maintaining a healthy community. “Everybody has to do their part, at whatever moment in time you come to the Jewish Center and whatever your interest is. You can’t just be a consumer; for a community to work, you have to be an active participant,” she said.

The Jewish Center’s founders were models of active participation. “They did everything; they taught Sunday school as volunteers,” Meisel said. “This is a congregation where people have been doers, and we need to continue that tradition.”

Nadine Singer — who is a celebration cochair with her husband, Scott; Marissa and Jesse Treu; and Robin and Jeff Persky — moved to Princeton when her daughter Samantha, now a senior at the Peddie School in Hightstown, was 18 months old. It was the Jewish Center’s preschool, which all three of her children attended, that pulled Singer into the congregational community. “I really formed most of my friendships I still have to date through that nursery school,” she said.

Children and parents gather for a Sunday School event in 1958.

The Sept. 14 event — Celebrating 70: A Night on the Town — is designed with the next generation in mind. “The theme is ‘L’dor vador,’ from generation to generation, and our goal is to fill the room with young families like we were 15 or 16 years ago — to have them step up and get involved and get out of it what our family has,” Singer said.

“We tried keeping the event fun, lively — not a ‘gala,’” Singer explained. “We didn’t want to appear stuffy and old-fashioned.” To liven things up, they will have a mix of table types — round and long and rectangular — to enable larger groups to sit together. They opted for food stations with different types of cuisine, and the specialty of the disc jockey is Israeli techno music.

Preparations for the 70th anniversary started a year ago. With the aim, said Meisel, of sharing “the flavor of the Jewish Center over time,” a committee, headed by Barbara Vilkomerson, chose a broad cross-section of people to be interviewed for monthly newsletter articles. They also created a video about people’s experiences within the Jewish Center community, and updated a timeline of the synagogue’s history. “We felt it was important to put all that in one place, to save something that would be meaningful for people who come to the Jewish Center 25 years from now,” Meisel said.

For both Feldman and Meisel, the anniversary is also a time to express appreciation.

Recalling the days when a tent was used to provide additional seating for the High Holidays and “a bird flew into the tent and was flapping around the sanctuary,” Meisel expressed thanks for the commodious worship space and social hall that an earlier generation of congregants had the forethought to build for the growing community.

Feldman is appreciative of the Jewish Center’s relationship with the larger Princeton community, both as a synagogue and through the work of individual members. “When there’s a crisis, we have partners to address it — if it’s anti-Semitism, racism, or Islamophobia,” he said.

Feldman also expressed pride in the Jewish Center’s multigenerational education. “As much as we’ve been about the children, because they are the future, we also take the adults seriously because they are the present,” he said.

“Our history is so rich and full of major accomplishments and proud moments,” he said. “I see the evening as a time to pause and reflect. And I think our future is even brighter.”

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