To butcher Billy Joel’s lyrics a bit, “Who needs a ‘Chabad House’ out in Hackensack?” Well, it’s clear to many that Bergen County does.
Just before Pesach, Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, led by Rabbi Ephraim Simon, completed its agreement to acquire Temple Beth El’s synagogue building in Hackensack, located at 280 Summit Avenue. The newly forming Chabad of Hackensack will operate initially under the auspices of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, and it will be led by Rabbi Mendy Kaminker, who is moving to Hackensack in June from southern New Jersey to take up the post. Seven miles from the George Washington Bridge, Hackensack, the Bergen County seat, is bordered by Paramus, River Edge and Teaneck, in addition to eight other small Bergen County towns.
A vibrant Jewish community has existed in Hackensack for over 100 years. As early as 1908, Orthodox services were first held at the State Street Armory, and later the German Odd Fellows Hall on Main Street, followed by the Bergen County Odd Fellows Hall, also on Main Street. Then known as Hackensack Hebrew Institute, the synagogue rented the Washington Institute on Main and Warren Streets for evening services and afternoon Talmud Torah classes. In 1921, it moved to the corner of State and Meyer Streets. During the 1950s, the congregation altered its seating layout to mixed-gender seating. In 1957, an addition was completed. Fifteen years later, with the move of many families to the Maple Hill Drive area of Hackensack, the current building was constructed on Summit Avenue and the name changed to Temple Beth El. In 1974, the Hasbrouck Heights Jewish Community Center merged with the congregation, which today is Conservative and egalitarian. Rabbi Robert Schumeister has been the synagogue’s spiritual leader since 1980, and he will continue to serve the community of approximately 45 members, which has Chabad’s blessing to remain in the building for the next three years.
“The founders were predominantly merchants in Hackensack. Nine of our current Temple Beth El members, including myself, trace our roots back to the Hackensack Hebrew Institute,” said Pam Hecht, who serves as secretary on Temple Beth El’s board of directors. “Going back to the 1960s and earlier, we fondly remember attending services and Hebrew school, and having our bar or bat mitzvahs there. There was a daily minyan, adult education, an active sisterhood and a Hebrew school,” Hecht recalled.
The rich Jewish roots of the city is something the new Chabad rabbi looks forward to delving into. Chabad’s Rabbi Kaminker, currently of Cherry Hill, was raised in Israel, is married to Shterna, and they have five children. “We are all very excited to embark on this journey and are very much looking forward to coming to the Chabad of Hackensack. We have heard a lot of the history of this community and we are convinced that Hackensack has a great Jewish future as well,” said Rabbi Kaminker.
“At one time, Hackensack was a big centerpiece of the Jewish community in Bergen County,” said Rabbi Simon. “Before Jews moved to Fort Lee, Teaneck and Alpine, this was their shul. There is a lot of history in the building, and it is a beautiful edifice,” Rabbi Simon told The Jewish Link.
Hecht shared that the beautiful main sanctuary with its high barrel roof is the shul’s centerpiece. “Cantors and performers have praised the acoustics in the room. A striking part of the main sanctuary is the set of stained glass windows depicting symbols for the 12 tribes of Israel. Temple Beth El is proud to display the works of the artist Marius Sznajderman, who was a member of Temple Beth El for more than 50 years. Our main lobby is home for the Holocaust memorial that he created,” she told The Jewish Link.
“My family has been members of the Hackensack Hebrew Institute since either the 1930s or early 1940s,” said Carolyn Kristal, a Temple Beth El board member who was involved with the property’s sale. “At some point it was in terrible shape. My father and his friends at the shul organized a fundraiser and bought a house where the current shul is, and later, built a building where it is now. My mother and her friends decorated the shul. There were about 250 families who were members,” Kristal recalled.
Kristal was the link in the chain who brought her beloved temple to Chabad. As an attorney, she has the Chabad of Fort Lee as a client. She has been close to Rabbi Meir Konikov, Fort Lee’s Chabad rabbi, for a number of years. “I live in Fort Lee and all I see are temples that have been sold to Korean churches. I called Rabbi Konikov and said, ‘We have this problem,’ and I don’t want what’s happening in Fort Lee and Leonia to happen here. In Fort Lee it [Congregation Gesher Shalom] became a church and the temple got to stay in for awhile, but they were out of there pretty quickly.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t want this place to turn into a church. I want to keep it a Jewish institution. Can you help me?’” recalled Kristal.
Rabbi Konikov called his colleague Rabbi Simon, and the rest, as they say, is history—though working out all the details has taken upwards of a year and a half. Kristal also added that it was important that the synagogue be sold on the members’ own terms. “While the Chabad is building their congregation, ours will deplete, because we don’t lose people because they move. There are a lot of Jews in Hackensack, but they aren’t joining Conservative temples anymore, they are joining Reform or Orthodox,” she said.
Hecht concurred that keeping the building Jewish was a high priority. “Speaking for myself and many of our members, we are pleased that a Jewish presence will continue in Hackensack. The sale of the building to Chabad enables Temple Beth El to exist as a synagogue without the burden of the upkeep of the building. Chabad has an exciting opportunity to grow in Hackensack. I am grateful to our member Carolyn Kristal, who recognized that this was a way to help both Temple Beth El and Chabad, and brought the two organizations together,” she said.
Hecht's view was echoed by other temple leaders. “I am grateful to our board of directors and our membership for giving our board (and myself) the authority to see this to fruition,” Mark Zettler, Temple Beth El’s board president, told The Jewish Link. “There certainly was a bit of blind faith our members put in our board to make sure we did the right thing,” he added.
Rabbi Simon, however, was thunderstruck by the Jewish light and strong Jewish identity he saw in the Hackensack community. “Imagine how wonderful this community is that they wanted to keep it Jewish. They could have sold this property for $2 million to a mosque or a church, but they sold it to Chabad for much less, to keep it Jewish,” said Rabbi Simon.
“Rabbi Simon and I have come to what I think is a unique understanding for and appreciation of each other and our two separate groups,” said Zettler. “Rabbi Simon has been very kind with his time and desire to be fair to both of our institutions throughout the process of creating this sale.”
“This was not necessarily a happy time for me, as our temple’s rich history as an independent organization in our own synagogue has come to an end,” Zettler noted. “So many leaders have come before me and were able to weather many storms, as one does, and were able to carry on. We just reached a point where we needed to be creative in our approach to keeping our doors open. This transaction/sale has made that possible,” he said.
The Chabad emissaries, however, are looking forward to bringing their joyous tradition and unique brand of Jewish inclusivity to Hackensack, just as they do with great energy in over 3,500 communities around the world. Said Rabbi Kaminker: “We are guided by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision to reach and connect every single Jew and to create a place where everyone feels like family, and no one will feel judged. We believe that these days, it is a hyperpolarized environment in the United States, which of course affects us as Jews as well. This idea of having a place where we can connect everyone, above affiliation or level of observance, we can look to our core that connects us, our Jewish soul. We believe it will resonate with everyone in the community,” Kaminker added.
Rabbi Kaminker added that he visited Hackensack and met with residents shortly before Pesach, giving out matzah to local community members. He reported a sense that the community is excited for the change. He also added that the benefit of Chabad of Hackensack’s location just steps from Hackensack University Medical Center will create an extraordinary opportunity for Jews in the region who visit the hospital and require rabbinic services, minyanim or assistance of any kind. “One of the first things that I have set on the calendar for after Pesach is meeting with the Bikur Cholim of Bergen County, who are serving the Jews who come to Hackensack UMC, and how we can help them with that. Together, I am sure we can make the community better,” Rabbi Kaminker added.
Rabbi Simon said that Chabad has agreed to undertake an expensive roof repair at the synagogue and to make some other important improvements to the building before June. “It needs ongoing maintenance, and a bit of a facelift,” said Rabbi Simon. He explained that since Chabad is not funded from one central organization and that all the Chabad Houses operate independently, it is with efforts like this that new houses can be born; a larger community like Teaneck is able to recognize a need and help take a step forward and bring in another Chabad shaliach to help build up the community.
In addition to the beautiful building, the temple has a sizable parking lot, part of which is rented out to Prospect Heights, a nearby medical rehabilitation center, and Adventure Land Nursery School rents a portion of the building. Those tenants will continue to rent with no changes for now, and the transition is going extremely smoothly, reported Hecht.
Real estate options in Hackensack are varied and can welcome a wide variety of family sizes, from one-bedroom rental apartments, to larger condominiums, luxury apartments and standalone homes, which increases the prospects for Hackensack to turn into another welcome option for Shomer Shabbat singles, couples and retirees coming from Manhattan, Riverdale or the Teaneck apartments. “There are a lot of high-rise apartment buildings in that area as well as single-family houses,” said Marc Stein, broker/owner of Links Residential, a real estate agency. “There are a lot of options in Hackensack for all price ranges,” he added.
But what remains most exciting to Rabbi Simon is how moving it is that the current membership made such an effort to ensure that the building stays in Jewish hands. “The people there now, it was their parents who ran the synagogue. They have genuine and real attachment to Judaism and wanted to keep it Jewish. Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County is really pledging to keep this building in the memory of the founders of this synagogue to make it a thriving center of Jewish life in Hackensack again,” said Rabbi Simon.
“With all of the outreach that our Chabad does there is so much more we can do in Hackensack. There are so many Jews who live on Prospect and Summit Avenues near Hackensack UMC. I have, literally, people who walked to me from the medical center (about 3 miles) this Pesach. “We had a naming of a baby girl, and a baby boy born, and the family was walking from the medical center. We are the closest Orthodox synagogue. Having a presence at the hospital will be huge. It’s half a mile from the hospital, a short walk from Prospect Avenue,” Rabbi Simon said.
Rabbi Simon expressed his gratitude about the overall purchase experience. “The transition has been seamless. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the president, the board of directors. They will continue, for the next three years, their minyan, and there’s plenty of space for our programming as well.” He added that Chabad of Hackensack will start up, as much as possible, all the Chabad programs that Chabad does everywhere...including Shabbos minyanim, events, weekday adult education programs, preschool programming, Mommy and Me and hospital visitation.
“We are committed financially to be a thriving source of Jewish pride in Hackensack,” said Rabbi Simon. Invoking the name of the Rebbe once again, he expressed his faith that Chabad Hackensack is a great step forward for Bergen County Yiddishkeit. “If there was one thing that the Lubavitcher Rebbe imbued upon his emissaries, if there is another Jew we can help out, then we have that mandate. For the thousands of Jews in Hackensack... it’s a great area for young professionals, retirees, young people with young children, and it’s only around 3 miles from Teaneck. Some have been walking to me already.”
Visit Rabbi Kaminker’s brand-new website at https://www.chabadhackensack.com/. Rabbi Simon added that if community members want to help build Chabad of Hackensack, please visit Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County at http://www.chabadhouse.com.