Beth El Synagogue History
Beth El was founded in Hightstown in 1911 by a group of Jewish farmers who met for services in each other’s homes. They built their first synagogue in 1937 on Franklin Street in Hightstown, in a structure that now serves as a union hall.
Established as an Orthodox congregation, Beth El began to consider becoming Conservative in the late ’40s and officially became part of the conservative movement in the 1960s.
Beth El moved to its present location in East Windsor in 1977, and in 1998 the Zaitz Education Wing was added to the building. It houses a full-time preschool, library, and religious school that meets twice weekly.
The temple has grown in the last 17 years from 180 to 330 families. But there was a time when you could count the members on your two hands. What follows is a history of Beth El, from the time when members still met at one another’s homes to pray until today.
The Formation of Beth El Synagogue
(by Beth El member Lew Meixler, with thanks to Renee Cohen who wrote the first Beth El memoir)
Beth El Synagogue was originally formed in Highstown in 1911. Several Jewish families had already come together, but in order to purchase a property on which to build a future synagogue, they had to form a legal entity. So, on May 13, 1911, five members of the Hightstown Jewish community – Abraham A. Juris, Tobias Pfeffer, Abraham Abramovitz, Soloman Grudin and Max Citrynowie – appeared before the commissioner of Deeds in Trenton, New Jersey and obtained a obtained a certificate of incorporation.
These five men became the first trustees of the what then became “The First United Hebrew Association of Hightstown.” A copy of the incorporation refers to them as a “congregations of Christians and a religious and charitable society” reflecting the strong Christian religious influence of the day.
The Early Days
The first official home of the Synagogue would not be established until almost 25 years later, but the congregation grew in the mean time. The congregation used to meet at the larger homes of the members for services and to celebrate the Jewish holidays and other events. One frequent meeting place was Max Zaitz’s father’s house on Main street in Hightstown. Older congregants remember meeting at the opera house in Hightstown – on the west side of the railroad tracks one block south of Stockton Street – to accommodate the larger crowds on the High Holidays (the opera house is no linger there). The congregation also met at the Gamerov home in Hightstown.
The first “official” religious leader of the congregation was Mr. Michael Kanov who was affectionately referred to as Reb Kanov because he was the most observant person in the area and very knowledgeable in Judaism, although not formally trained as a Rabbi. The Jewish Community met in each other’s homes, and the minyanim were comprised of all the males present, no matter how old they were. Women were counted in the minyanim as was the custom in the more traditionally observant synagogues of that time. Mr. Kanov was also the Shochet (ritual slaughterer) for the Jewish people in the Hightstown area. Helen Goldstein says that he would come to people’s homes to slaughter the chickens to make them Kosher, and that the chickens would sense his coming and become very agitated. Reb Kanov’s wife was born in Israel, and people referred to her as a “Sabra”, as those born in Israel are called. Mr. Kanov led the prayers, presided at festivals and services, and settled disagreements between individuals and families. Mr. Kanov worked daily as a laborer on a farm, but in the evenings and on weekends he led taught the Jewish community. He led discussions and was the person who helped teach and later lead the services at which the young men in the community would become a bar mitzvah. While professional Cantors were hired for the High Holidays, Mr. Kanov was the person who held the spiritual community together throughout the years. The Kanov family still lives in the area. Their daughter is Aviva Sussman, and she lives in Trenton.
The Early Families
During the nineteen twenties and thirties other families came into the area and settled in the Hightstown, Perrineville and Cranbury areas. Some were farmers, and others started businesses in the area. The founding families of Juris, Pfeffer, Abramovitz, Grudin, Citrynowie, Zaitz and Kanov were augmented by the addition of the Gross Brothers, the Gamerov, Leshin, Notterman, Kramer, Wolfson, Antonowski, the Barth/Bard family, Pravancher, Shapiro and Rothschild families.
The Jewish Presence in Hightstown After World War II
By the mid 1940’s Beth El had grown to a small congregation of about 35 active families. Many of the families lived and worked in the Hightstown area. Their entire life was focused on improving the local environment for their families and businesses, and that extended to ensuring that Beth El grew and prospered. The people that they dealt with in the stores and businesses were the same people who they prayed with, or with whom they socialized on a regular basis. This led to a tight knit community. Their stories show the growth of the Jewish community as business owners and leaders. Here is a bit about some of the families:
- The first Kosher butcher shop opened in Hightstown in 1948 owned by the Shub family. Prior to that people would have to go to Trenton for Kosher meat.
- A Kosher Delicatessen owned by the Margareta family took over a candy store and also opened for business in the late 1940s.
- Many Beth El members owned businesses right in the Hightstown area. The Blumenthal family owned a dress shop on Main Street in Hightstown.
- The Gershowitz family was also active at that time, and Hy (Herman) Gershowitz had the auto parts store on the north end of Main Street near the firehouse, in the triangular shaped building. Hy’s mother and father were early members of Beth El.
- Harry and Bea Cohen were also active members and they had a hardware store on Main Street.
- The Diamond family was a large family in the area that supported the Synagogue.
- Joe & Dorothy Levin and two of Joe’s brothers owned a furniture factory on Dye street that later burned down. The Diamond’s factory made couches and all kinds of quality upholstered furniture.
- The Juris family was also active, and Ed Juris and his two boys would daven as lay cantors for the congregation on Shabbat. The Juris family had two stores in the area.
- Harry and Sarah Stein had a fairly large hardware store in the middle of Hightstown up until the early 1970s.
- Jules and Toby Levin owned the old lumber yard near where Route 130 and Route 33 meet.
- The Smoller family had a junk yard in Hightstown, and later moved to the Trenton area.
- Harriet Kamen’s family owned a farm on One Mile Road.
- Rose Sand and Hilda Beytas were also active in Beth El and many of the Jewish Women’s groups in the area.
- Kate and Ralph Luria owned the first complete department store in Hightstown. It was located in the building on the corner of Stockton and Main streets where the Allen & Stults Insurance company is presently. Fran Bard recalls that it occupied the entire corner of the block.
- In competition with Luria, the Schlossberg family had a smaller variety store, a type of five and Dime across the street between the present Court Jester and the parking lot. The structure burned down due to a gas leak in the 1970s.
- In the 1960s, Joe Rubenstein opened a bagel bakery near Gordon and Wilson on Main Street, providing Jewish style delicatessen, bagels and Bialys.
- Ira XXX took over the bus station and opened a tire store, calling it “Tires by Ira”.
- The Antonowsky family owned the only two gasoline stations that existed at the time on route 130. Harriet taught in the public school in East Windsor, and also taught at Beth El’s Hebrew School.
- Sam Rothschild was the secretary of the Synagogue for about 20 years.
- Probably the most interesting story is that of Alice and Ben Katz. Alice’s maiden name was Salmanowitz. Her father and mother owned “The Central Hotel”, which stood at the present location of the U. S. Post Office right on Main Street in Hightstown. The hotel was a popular stopping point for people who traveled on the railroad between Camden and Perth Amboy, and also was an active place on the weekends when people who worked all week farming would come into town for some break from their labors. This was were Ben first met Alice many years ago, and they married and raised their children in the Hightstown area. Ben and Alice’s daughter, Elaine married into the Josephson family.
- David Goldstein and his wife Helen took over a drugstore that had been owned by the Stern family after Dave returned from service in World War II. The drugstore was near the Blumenthal dress shop in town.
- Another Beth El Leader who was active during the Second World War was Max Silverstein. Max served with General Claire Lee Chanault of the Flying Tigers in China before and during the War. He had a number of photos of himself with the Flying Tigers in his dentist office on South Main Street while he had his practice extending from after the war until well into the 1980s. In addition to being a President of Beth El Synagogue, Max was also active in the Flying Tigers veterans association and attended their reunions on a regular basis. Max and his wife Rhoda were very active in the Jewish organizations for many years in the area. A major presence in the area was the Zaitz family that was involved in raising cattle in and around the East and West Windsor areas, as well as other locations in New Jersey. Max Zaitz was a major supporter of Beth El throughout his entire life. His father moved to the area when Max was very young. Max and his brothers would help raise the cattle and walk them to the market in Hightstown. Slowly over the years the Zaitz family accumulated significant farmland in the area. Max’s son Ben is still involved in farming although he now lives in North Carolina.
Throughout the years, while still meeting in one another’s home or in rented locations for larger events, congregation members set aside funds to eventually someday build a building for Beth El Synagogue. They held Strawberry Festivals, Card Parties, Hanukah celebrations and Purim Parties. The men made donations when they received an aliyah at High Holiday services. Anything that would bring in money was put aside to build a Synagogue on the piece of land they had purchased on Franklin Street. During the years prior to the first building, dues were $15 a year per family. There were a number of Jewish boys attending Peddie School, and the boys would attend services at the Opera house in Hightstown during the High Holidays. Fund raising letters were sent to the parents of the Peddie school boys, and as much as two thousand dollars was raised through this method in one year. As the Hightstown Jewish community grew along with it, new families moved into town. While they still held services in each other’s homes on Friday and Saturday, they began to hire weekend Rabbis. The Rabbi would come into town early on Friday evening and stay through the Shabbat until Saturday Evening or Sunday at a member’s home. Whenever a Cantor was hired, he too stayed at a member’s house.
The Jewish community became an extended family. If one family had a misfortune, other families would help. If a family had a fire in their home, another family would take them in until the damage could be repaired. Sometimes, children would sleep on chairs, on the floor, or anywhere the could. They were together in sickness and health, through good times and bad time. Marriages between the families occurred. Sometimes, as children grew, if there was no other suitable mate, the family moved away.
The Franklin Street Building
The original Building that once housed Beth El Synagogue is still located on route 33 in Hightstown [Franklin Street] and is presently being used as an office building. It is said that the synagogue owned the land in the 1930’s. It was the depths of the depression, and the congregation was informed that they would have to pay taxes on the land, unless they started construction of a religious building on it. They decided it was time to start the construction of a permanent home for Beth El Synagogue, so in the midst of the worst economic times in memory, they initiated construction of Beth El Synagogue’s first home.
The building was constructed by Louis Bard and his son Nathan Bard. Louis Bard was a builder in the area, and had built many of the homes in the Hightstown and Princeton area. The Barth and the Bard families are related. The name was changed in one branch of the family due to a misspelling when one of them entered the service during World War I. Later, Louis Barth’s wife Mary made a large donation to Beth El that would enable further expansion. Members of the Barth/Bard families were active in Har Sinai Synagogue in Trenton and held judicial positions in the State as well as owned property in the area.
The building was completed in 1937. The cornerstone on the structure is dated May 1937. There was no Rabbi for Beth El Synagogue at the time, so a Rabbi came from Trenton to officiate at the dedication ceremony. The new Beth El Synagogue was a red brick building located near the present St. Anthony Catholic Church on Franklin Street. The roof rises to a peak in the front and the star of David can still be seen located just below the peak. A broad set of brick steps provided the main entrance way to a large pair of wooden doors that led one through a second set of interior doors to the sanctuary on the upper level. Two tower like structures flanked either side of the entrance way, and each provided a side door entrance into the building, that lead either up to the sanctuary, or down to the basement level, each with in inside stair way. The inner stairways also led to a lower basement level. There was a coatroom adjacent to one side of the entrance to the Sanctuary, and rest rooms on the other.
The sanctuary was a large single room with a central isle, and two outside isles. The congregants sat on rows of wooded benches. Red carpet led from the entrance up to the Bima on the far wall. The hand carved wooden Ark that held the Torahs sat on a raised platform. In front was a reader’s table with an embroidered blue table cover. There were two built-in benches on either side of the Ark. The top of the Ark was adorned with two rampant lions holding the tablets of the 10 commandments. On each side of the ark there was a wooden hand carved cabinet that held the books used for the services. Each cabinet was adorned with a carved wooden Star of David. Behind each of the stars of David were red glass that could be lit from behind to make a very warm glow. U. S. and Israeli flags stood on either side of the bima. The sanctuary was illuminated by large globe lamps that were suspended from the ceiling. Three large windows on either side of the room provided light and ventilation for the sanctuary. The windows on the southern wall were stained glass, while those on the north wall were plane windows. The Ark is presently in the smaller sanctuary in the Maple Stream building and is used for minyanim and small services. The stained glass windows, donations by some of the founding families, have also been moved to Maple Stream, and are mounted on outer the wall of the present Sanctuary. The first wedding in the new building was the Weiner family. Fran Bard remembers that the groom was a painter. The second marriage in the Franklin Street building was Fran’s marriage to Nat Bard on December 17, 1939. Fran recalled that Rabbi Korbman officiated at her wedding, and members of the Congregation Eddie Levin and David Spelkman were present.
Originally, the building had an unfinished basement, with a kitchen in the rear. Later they then built two rooms on the back for the Rabbi who traveled from Livingston, NJ to stay in on the weekends. Still later, they purchased the house next to the synagogue on the corner of Franklin and Maxwell Avenue for the Rabbi to stay in. It was important for the Rabbi to be close to the synagogue so that an eruv could be make between the two buildings, so the Rabbi could carry things between the two on the Shabbat. This house was referred to as a “Parsonage” for Beth El in legal documents.
In 1968 the congregation decided to finish the basement to make it more of a social hall. Mitch Dorum, a local handyman together with help from the Men’s Club put up paneling, and a finished floor was put down. That year, the congregation had a party on New Year’s eve with a juke box, and open bar. Some members drank quite a bit, and when the party was finally over, they all went out into the newly fallen snow, and we worried that they would get home all right.
The quarters that originally had been used for the Rabbi’s sleeping quarters were converted to a classroom and a secretary’s office. Jessie Ingber – wife of then President Mauri Ingber – was the first full time Secretary for Beth El, although at first she worked for free. She served in that position until after the congregation moved to Maple Stream Road, at which time the congregation had grown to the point where the Office Secretary became a paid position.
Until the early 1970’s, the area around Hightstown was still mainly undeveloped. Some development had started in East Windsor, and even less in West Windsor. Twin Rivers had just started the first Quad in 1969, and many Jews were moving into the are,a drawn by the relatively affordable housing and jobs in the industries in the area. There was very little shopping and few movies nearby to distract people on the weekends. Friday night was a chance for the Jewish families to gather together for services, followed by a social Oneg Shabbat in the newly finished basement.
Originally, the Congregation was orthodox with a machitza (a low curtain) that separated the men from the women in the sanctuary. Harriet Kamen, whose family owned a farm on One Mile Road, taught Sunday and Hebrew school, and Reb Kanov taught the Bar Mitzvah training classes. One “tradition” that has been fondly mentioned time and again by congregants was when Ben Katz, President of the Synagogue, would hold an auction for Aliyas on the High Holidays. In the late 1940’s, the congregation only had about 35 families. Dues were less than $50 per year. To make ends meet, Ben Katz and Reb Kanov would hold an auction each year, and the Aliyas were auctioned off for $15 – $25 each. Some of the more “desirable” honors were auctioned for $100 or even more. In this way, the funds required to operate the synagogue were raised each year, and everyone enjoyed and looked forward to the auction. Many other fundraisers were held in the old building, such as rummage sales, chinese auctions, socials, etc.
I (LewMeixler) have a first person recollection of Ben Katz. Ben was not a person that you could say no to. A problem with old building was that there was not enough light over the reader’s table on dark or overcast days. When Ben Katz found out that I was an electrical engineer, he decided I could add a light over the reader’s table. He met me at the synagogue one Sunday, and helped while I climbed up into the attic through a trap door and wired in a recessed light into the ceiling. It was tricky to find the location just above the reader’s table, but we did it. Ben was confident that we would be able to do it just fine. Ben was the most positive and enthusiastic person in the Synagogue.
Alice Katz, Ben’s wife was also deeply involved in the synagogue, organizing and coordinating the preparation of food for the various events that were held in the building, and working with the other women on the various functions of the congregation.
When people talk about Beth El Synagogue, the term that was used most often was the Yiddish word “Haimish,” which means homelike. The Franklin Street Synagogue was referred to as “The Shuel,” and most members thought of the Franklin Street Synagogue as a kind of second home. Friday night services were well attended by the regulars and everyone brought their children. At the end of each service, there would be a kiddush in the sanctuary led by the Rabbi. Each congregant would receive a small glass of sweet kosher wine to mark the beginning of Shabbat. By then, most of the children had fallen asleep on the benches. It was not unusual to see the Schlesinger, Altman, Benson, Genek, and other children sound asleep on the benches by the end of the service. In the winter time, the adults would cover the children with coats, and while the children slept on the benches upstairs, the adults would go downstairs to the basement for an Oneg Shabbat. People would linger well into the evening. Talk was lively and people didn’t want to leave. Finally, at about 10:30 or so, everyone would wake up their older children, or carry the younger ones upstairs, and make their way out into the evening air to their cars and back home.
The First Rabbis
Although Mr. Kanov served for many years as the spiritual leader of the Beth El community, around 1950, is was decided to retain a Rabbi on a regular basis. Rabbi Korbman, who taught in the Newark schools, was retained as the part time Rabbi for the congregation. For 18 years, Rabbi Korbman traveled from Newark to Hightstown for two days each week, staying over Friday and Saturday evenings and teaching in the Sunday school before returning home each week. It was said that although the Rabbi’s salary was paid by the membership dues and other fund raisers of the Synagogue, the guest Rabbi and Cantor for High Holidays would command a much higher fee. Sometimes as much as $800 for the services. Often the Synagogue did not have the funds in the treasury to pay so they would take up a special collection for them.
In the mid 1960’s, many changes were starting to take place in the Hightstown area. The New Jersey Turnpike opened an exit in Hightstown in 1956, and this encouraged many companies to open branches in the local area. This brought new employees and their families. Many of the companies were in highly technical areas, such as the RCA Space Center, Carter Wallace, National Lead, McGraw-Hill, and others. The new people coming in tended to be professionals and highly trained and educated. Engineers, scientists accountants, lawyers, and teachers, and others with their young Jewish families were drawn to the area by the affordable housing of Twin Rivers or the new home developments in East Windsor. The members that were active in the late 1960’s were still Ben and Alice Katz, and the Kovitz family, the Ingbers, the Davners, the Chaikens, Hy and Selma Gershowitz, the Bensons, the Greenfields, the Kotlers, the Juris family, the Bodins, the Richmans and many others. In 1967, the membership had reached 65 families, and the congregation filled the sanctuary to capacity on many Friday evenings. By the late 1960’s, the Congregation had shifted from Orthodox to a right wing type of Conservative congregation. Some families were pressing for more liberal changes, such as more participation by women in the rituals, counting of women in the Minyans, and more English in the services. For one group of members, Beth El Synagogue was too traditional, and they split off from Beth El and formed a new Reform Congregation, Beth Chaim. Beth Chaim orginally met in a church on One Mile Road on Friday Evenings, led by a Rabbi Posner. They later moved to a new building on Village Road in West Windsor and have been under the Rabbinic leadership of Rabbi Wisnia since the early 1970’s.
The board decided that it was time to hire a permanent Rabbi for the congregation. The first permanent Rabbi was Rabbi Weiss. He was a young, newly married Rabbi trained in as a Lubavacher Rabbi. He was very tall, thin and had a beautiful voice, and very pleasant demeanor. He was very warm and congenial and he and his wife invited many people to his house next to the synagogue for dinners. He led services on Friday night and Saturday and all the holidays. After Shabbat services, he would have a discussion as part of the Oneg, during which the worshipers would have some Herring and Challah bread and discuss the Torah reading or some other aspect of Judaism.
Rabbi Weiss left a deep legacy on congregation Beth El. He encouraged participation in the services by all members. A group of new young members decided to learn to lead services. These included Maurice Greenfield, Harry Benson and Jerry Kotler. These men learned to daven services, and also to read Torah. Also, member Al Chiakin davened Friday nights. They learned new melodies from Rabbi Weiss, many from Chasidic traditions, and introduced them into our services. These melodies enlivened the services and everyone enjoyed singing, or at least trying to sing along. Rabbi Weiss stayed with Beth El as a 1/2 time rabbi for several years, and then became the full time Rabbi at Roosevelt synagogue. Rabbi Weiss was followed by Rabbis Weinberg, Rabbi Maris, Rabbi Abramovitz, Rabbi Miller, Rabbi Roth, Rabbi Tucker, Rabbi Perlman and presently Rabbi Kornsgold, who joined Beth El in 1994. It was during Rabbi Abramovitz’ tenure that the Congregation decided to move from the Franklin Street building to the Maple Stream location.
A Challenge to the Jewish Community – the Klu Klux Clan
One of the most severe challenges to the Jewish community during the time was an incident triggered by the Klu Klux Klan. There had been a series of cross-burnings in the East Windsor – West Windsor area. Crosses were burned on the railroad bridge in Hightstown. One was burned that had been nailed to the door of the Highstown Gazette. Others were burned in the area. The KKK was upset because of all the Jews that were moving into the area, and also wanted to intimidate the black population in the area. Klan activities were not unknown in the Central New Jersey area, and there were many Klan rallies in the 1920s at the New Jersey State Fair Grounds less than 20 miles from Highstown. In fact, the largest Klan rally recorded in the State took place in the Trenton Fair grounds back then, and it was well known that KKK groups had come from Hightstown, Allentown, and other nearby localities. The Jewish community decided that it had to speak out against this type of provocation. A counter KKK march was decided, and many Jewish and Gentile groups from many neighboring communities came to Hightstown on a Sunday afternoon to march and demonstrate against the Klan. Many feared that there would be violence. Rabbi Weiss said that he and his wife and their small child would be at the demonstration, because he felt that it was important to speak out against religious and ethnic hatred. It seemed that the entire congregation turned out for the demonstration, including hundreds and hundreds of people from all over. Bus loads of people came into the area. The Jewish Defense League (JDL) came from New York City and Philadelphia and the group marched from Franklin Street into Hightstown and then down Stockton Street, eventually winding up at the park on Grant Street where a Klansman was burned in effigy to the chants of “Never Again.” The march was televised on many major news channels. Members Sylvia and Isadore Weiss became alarmed when saw the coverage on TV while they were on a trip to Israel and phoned to make sure everything was all right.
The Congregation Matures into a Full Service SynagogueIn March 1955, members gather for a dinner in the basement of the Franklin Street synagogue.
At this time the first Beth El newsletter, the “Shalom,” was established by Jerry Kotler’s wife Lorraine. Early editions were written on a typewriter and run off on the mimeograph machine in the synagogue basement. Sandy Halofsky took over for Lorraine and upgraded the Shalom format to the format that is largely still used today. The new Shalom adopted the new policy of obtaining ads to help pay for the cost. One controversy was whether to accept ads from restaurants the served non-kosher foods – a policy that changed back and forth from time to time over the years. The Shalom established a means for the officers and the Rabbi to inform the Congregation of Synagogue events, policy and other issues, and for the Rabbi to provide information about Jewish Holidays and other religious and Jewish matters. The Shalom was supplemented by the “Mid Month Mailing” that women from the Sisterhood would help get out each month.
Annette Singer started a very active Adult Education Series, in which as much as $2,000 per year was spent on bringing in experts in various aspects of Jewish life who would give a lecture series. Some events were taught for six or eight weeks from respected educators from either the Jewish Theological Seminary who would travel to Hightstown to hold class, or by scholars from nearby universities. Authors of books on Jewish topics were invited to speak. Trudy Weiss Rosmarin, who wrote on issues of Jewish identity and intermarriage, was a guest speaker. Some speakers were not well known educators and authors. Some were local people who spoke about the Central New Jersey area’s Jewish heritage. One memorable guest speaker was Morris (Max) Bressler. Mr. Bressler was a resident of Roosevelt and was probably born around the turn of the century. He was remembered as a great story teller, with a remarkable speaking voice. Bressler had come to the Central New Jersey area in the early part of the 1900’s and worked as an insurance salesman, traveling throughout the area and serving mainly the Jewish farmers. He would travel all around from farm to farm visiting his clients and selling them life, property and other types of insurance.
One evening, Mr. Bressler told a fascinating story about an event that happened to Vineland N. J. in the early part of this century. According to Bressler, there was a Jewish farmer client of his that had migrant workers come to work on his farm in the spring and fall each year. One year, a small child disappeared just prior to the start of Passover. Immediately, the migrant workers accused the farmer of killing the child to use his blood to make matzah. It was a chilling reminder of the Bailiss case that had occurred not long before in Russia, and most familiar to Americans because of Bernard Malamud’s book “The Fixer.” The local Sheriff immediately arrested the Farmer and put him in jail. It turns out that the sheriff was smarter than immediately apparent. Bressler said the farmer was put in jail for his own safety, since tempers were running hot among the locals, and the sheriff was concerned about the farmer’s life. Soon thereafter, the body of the child was found, and one of the migrant workers – a jealous lover of the mother of the child – was arrested and convicted of the murder instead. A curious similarity to the Bailiss case. The story gave us a view into the sometimes hostile atmosphere that the early Jewish farmers placed themselves and their families in when they moved into New Jersey.
By the late 1960’s the congregation had shifted from Orthodox to Conservative in nature. There was now mixed seating, and Friday night services were in English and Hebrew. Saturday morning services were still all in Hebrew. Women were not allowed on the Bima yet, and girls were not becoming Bat Mitzvah. Mel Persily was president of the Board of Trustees at this time. Joel Kovitz was Treasurer, and Jerry Bodin was recording secretary. A very active B’nai B’rith men’s lodge was formed around this time, and many members of Beth El were also the members of the Lodge. Dave Richman, Sheldon Schlesinger, Jerry Bodin, Isadore Weiss and other Beth El members were the leadership of the Lodge.
Rabbi Weiss was followed by Rabbi Weinberg, who brought disgrace upon himself and his family because of an out of control gambling habit. The congregation terminated his employment and he was replaced by a new graduate from the seminary, Rabbi Marrus. Rabbi Marrus was single, and he decided to leave and relocate to a larger city. He was followed by Rabbi Abramovitz, and his wife Karen and several children.
The congregation was growing rapidly now, and High Holiday services were held in the auditorium of Hightstown High School, or in Geiger Hall on the Peddie Campus.
During the time that Rabbi Abramovitz was our spiritual leader, it became clear to the Board of Trustees that the Congregation had outgrown the capacity of the Franklin Street Building. A committee was formed to study the options open to the synagogue for expansion. The committee included Harry Benson, Mark Chazen and Jerry Kotler. They found a tract of land on Maple Stream Road that was 6.5 acres, located behind Zydorski’s farm, that was selling for $22,000. A motion was presented to the congregation that Beth El Synagogue buy the property for the location of a new building. Although the amount was though extravagant by some, the motion passed.
Under President of the Synagogue Len Winter, the actual decision to plan for the new building was made. A presentation on the new building was made to the Congregants by the architectural firm, Gilvary Associates in the basement of the Franklin Street building. A fund raising campaign was started, and with greater membership and new leadership on the Board of Trustee, the amount necessary to obtain a mortgage was raised. Zoning variances were needed to accommodate the required frontage, and to allow for Maple Stream Road to pass through the property. Building lots were surveyed to allow for the construction of the Rabbi’s residence. Drainage and utilities were required. Many committees were formed to address all these issue. The final vote to build the new building was made at a raucous General Meeting held in the cafeteria of the Walter C. Black school. The plan was to sell the Franklin Street Building and the adjacent house, and use the proceeds to help pay for the new home of Beth El. It was by no means unanimous. Some of the original members did not want to leave the Franklin Street Building and felt that the new members should just leave Beth El if they wanted to start a new congregation. They felt that the new members had no right to sell the two buildings that they had worked so hard for during all the prior years. The other side felt that without the proceeds from the sale of the old buildings, there would not be enough funding to make the transition. The Synagogue by-laws allowed for the latter, and in a tempestuous meeting, presided over by President Len Winter, the motion carried and it was decided to move. Some of the early members left Beth El Synagogue at that time, and joined either Toras Emes (an orthodox synagogue in Twin Rivers) or Congregations in Roosevelt or Perrineville.
The Move to the New Building
A final design for the new synagogue was developed by Gilvary Associates and was presented to the Board and the General Membership for approval. The building would be constructed on a portion of the 6.5 acres tract of land that had been purchased a few years earlier. The cost of the building would be $275,000 and the First National Bank of Hightstown, the bank with the classic stone facade carried the mortgage.
Ground was broken on XXXXX, and the building took form over the following summer and fall. Many evenings, members could be seen visiting the site and taking pictures. Gradually, the new building took shape. Many were impressed with the shear size of the building, which was enormous compared to the Franklin Street building. The building committee was headed by Len Millner, who had been the Mayor of East Windsor and knew how to deal with the township on various issues that would come up. The Shell was built first, and as the funds became available the insides were completed. Classrooms were added to the plans and offices for the Rabbi and the Office Secretary. A library, something the old synagogue did not have, was also added.
The actual transition from the Franklin Street Building to the new building was a highlight of Beth El Synagogues history. On Sunday, March 27, 1977, the members of Beth El, accompanied by a marching band from the High School, local dignitaries, other religious leaders, Jewish War Veterans, and others carried the torahs down Main Street, onto Stockton Street, and then down Dutch Neck Road to the new building on Franklin Street. The original Ark from the Franklin Street Bima was located on a temporary platform in the multi-purpose room and the Torahs were placed inside. The spirit and the enthusiasm of all the members were boundless. Somehow, the little congregation had moved to a new location that would allow growth and opportunities for the new Jewish families moving into the area. Many people still remember the excitement of that day with strong positive feelings.
Soon after the move to the new Maple Stream Building, a house was constructed for the Rabbi. Rabbi Abramovitz had a large family so the house was designed by Stan Aronson, a synagogue member, to accommodate the needs of a large family. The Rabbi’s house was on the same property as the new Synagogue, making it convenient for the Rabbi.
There were still problems to face, however. The new building was mainly stone and concrete. Some called it a warehouse. Money was very tight, so many of he members worked bingo each week as a way to bring in needed funds from outside the synagogue membership. Bingo lasted at Beth El for about 12 years, during which approximately $10,000 to $15,000 was raised to help pay for improvements to the facilities. The sanctuary had only wooden fold up chairs. The walls were bare. Slowly, things began to improve. Sheldon Schlesinger had arranged for the beautiful Stained glass windows, so generously donated by the founding families, to be mounted on frames and moved to the new building. That added a sense of continuity. The bima was covered in red carpet. Karen Abramovitz, the Rabbi’s wife encouraged the Sisterhood to knit together a large commemorative chupah that is presently on the wall of the multi-purpose room. Diane Goldstein headed up a Synagogue Beautification committee to organize the decorating of the new building. Deb Meixler headed up the New Membership committee with Ron Kraft, which obtained the largest number of new members in one year ever. The Hebrew School became very active and enrollment outgrew the facilities. Classes had to be held first in the public school, and then later at the Peddie School.
The area in Hightstown experienced slow growth for a while partially due to a halt to new home construction caused by limited municipal facilities. When the ban was lifted in the early 1990’s, a new influx of Jewish families came into the area and once again re-invigorated Beth El. In the mid 1990’s, under he leadership of Fred Rothman, a builder in the area, a school wing addition was added to the Maple Stream Road building. The new wing had offices for the School administrator, now a paid position. It also had a youth lounge, a larger library than the previous one, and 6 classrooms. This freed up the original library for small services, using the original Ark from the Franklin Street building.
Beth El Synagogue has been blessed with exceptional leadership. None are more deserving of praise than the persons who have taken on the responsibility of leading our Congregation. Without any direct remuneration, and often the focal point of criticism or complaints, the Presidents of Beth El have given of themselves unselfishly ever since the first meetings of the Congregation. It is said that in the Jewish tradition, building a house of worship is a special mitzvah, and leading a congregation must also be a special mitzvah. Below is list of those who have served as past Presidents followed by the selected comments of some who have offered their remembrances.
- Jacob Minnensohn(sp?)
- David Goldstein
- Max Silverstein
- Ed Juris
- Sol Diamond
- Harry Leshin
- Ben Katz
- Ira Leff
- Joel Kovitz
- Len Winter
- Harry Benson
- Maurice Ingber
- Mark Chazin
- Len Small
- Sam Buchman
- Bill Weinstein
- Art Pedowitz
- Marty Halofsky
- June Newman
- Marc Perlman
- Fred Allen
- Howard Alter
- Ann Grannet
- Fred Passman
- Ben Genek
- Brian Chevlin
- Craig Sherman
- Ben Genek – second term
- Doug Harris
- Marc Perlman – second term
Some notes about our Past Presidents
1) Ira Leff and his wife Sandy made Aliyah to Israel in the late 1960s
2) Dave Goldstein was also the President of the local Polio drive, President of the United Jewish Appeal, and participated in many drives such as the United Fund, Cancer Fund and others. He was President in 1968 and was followed by Max Silverstein. One of the major events that Dave recalls is “the Peddie School was a Baptist School, and all the students were ordered to go to church on Sundays. For four years, starting in 1969, the Jewish students came to Beth El on Sundays. At the year, their parents were invited and we received quite a bit of money from them in appreciation.”
3) Mauri Ingber served two terms as President (1969-1972, 1978-1979). When honored at a Synagogue gala, Mauri wrote this about his tenure.
“I appreciate the opportunity to record some recollections more than 30 years after the start of my first presidential term in 1969. The evolution of our congregation from Orthodox origins to Conservative identification, in order to accommodate the religious orientation of the rapid influx of young families into the East Windsor area, was replete with challenges, excitement, and various stresses. Most importantly, this period involved the work and dedication of so many “newcomers” (who are now “Old-timers”), or who can only be appreciated now in memory. I trust you will recognize their contribution to your inheritance of the current synagogue.
The Franklin Street’s Beth El was the focus of Jewish religious and social activity for many years. Go and look at the old building if you would like a better appreciation of the Beth El on Maple Stream Road. Imagine the re-insertion of our social hall – sanctuary stained glass windows into the brick walls of 237 Franklin Street, a synagogue without air-conditioning. Imagine the climb to the entrance of the synagogue, and the interior staircase to the downstairs social hall, kitchen, lavatories, and office. Contemplate the automobile traffic at the front doors, and the absence of a parking lot.
Newcomers in the mid-60’s were welcomed by a congregation of about 35 families served by a part-time Rabbi Meyer Korbman, who officiated during the various holidays, and special events. When necessary, the Rabbi stayed overnight in a small room below the sanctuary. In September of 1970, we appointed out first full-time rabbi, twenty two year old Joseph Weiss. A home for the Rabbi was purchased adjacent to the synagogue at 225 Franklin Street. Proposals were developed for expansion and renovation of the Franklin Street building, but were abandoned due to growth limitations at the site.
My two terms as President (1969-1972, 1978-1979) spanned the tenures of six rabbis: Meyer Korbman, Joseph Weiss, Ronald Roth, Roy Abramovitz, Henry Weinberg, and Elliot Marrus – what can be said other than the congregation and/or the Rabbis had differing perceptions or needs. We were certainly a training ground!
Other milestones during my tenure: a Men’s Club was organized, in addition to the already active Sisterhood; the synagogue’s first Constitution was approved; High Holiday services had to be conducted in larger quarters (Meadow Lakes/Peddie School); the site for our new synagogue on Maple Stream Road was purchased; our membership grew to almost 150 families; outreach programs were established for the Meadow Lakes retirement community and for students at Peddie School; a Couples Club was formed; Sunday School classes were conducted at the Walter C. Black School because of student population growth; and, the synagogue membership identified itself as a Conservation congregation.
My three children attended Beth El’s Religious School and all celebrated their Bar/Bat Mitzvot here. My wife, Jessie, served for fifteen years as administrative secretary in the synagogue office. The Franklin Street office was a tiny cramped room without climate control, entered from a rear side entrance of the building, behind the kitchen. Her equipment: a ditto machine, manual typewriter and telephone. Talk about dedication in those early tumultuous years.
My appreciation is extended to Rabbi Korngold, President Allen and the Board, Lew and Deb Meixler for their work in preparing the tribute journal, and the membership of Beth El for the honor of this evening’s tribute. I accept it on behalf of all those who shared the journey with me, and without whom nothing would have been achieved.”