Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5782
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
The year was 1871. Ulysses S. Grant was president. The Civil War had ended just 5 years before. The great Chicago Fire killed 300 and left 100,000 homeless. The first major league baseball game was played on May 4 and the first home run was hit on May 8. Across the pond Queen Victoria ruled England. Lord Stanley located a missing explorer in Africa and greeted him with the words, Dr. Livingstone I presume.
In Hoboken a group of German Jews founded a congregation that they called Adas Emuno⏤The Assembly of the Faithful. Twelve years later, in 1883, they built a synagogue, a Gothic Revival building that still stands today and which the Hoboken Evening News called, a credit to the city. We have a yad, a Torah pointer, from that dedication that is kept right behind me in our ark; and we still read from the Torah with the help of this 135-year-old yad.
While most of our congregational records have been lost over the decades, the original minutes from our first years survive. They were hand written in German, in an old style few people can read today. But one person who can is our very own Kurt Roberg, whom many of you know. Kurt, a refugee from Nazi Germany, with a remarkable story that he has written a book about⏤and possibly our most senior member at age 97⏤has been reading and transcribing those minutes.
At the Annual Meeting of the congregation on Sunday, Oct. 20, 1872 the president praised the generosity of the members in acquiring a Torah and other sacred objects, of raising some $1385 against total expenses of $1088 for a cash-on-hand balance of $297. Two weddings were held that year, and two b’nai mitzvah. Two funerals were also held that year. The second, writes the president, “for my little son.” The president concludes his address to the congregation, saying,
I have now given you an overview of everything that concerns our congregation, and even though there are somethings that we still wish to accomplish, we may be proud of the advances we made in one year. Don’t hesitate to sacrifice whether time or money to complete the task we have begun.
By the 1890s the congregation had tripled to a hundred families. The flourishing community included a religious school, a choir, and a benevolent association to aid the poor called the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society.At the turn of the century a Hanukkah menorah was dedicated to the congregation on December 13, 1900. Our 121-year-old menorah is in the vestry room and we still light it every year.
On May 27, 1917 a teen named Esther Cohn was confirmed at the Temple. She must have misplaced her Confirmation Certificate because I found it behind some books in the vestry room a few years ago. It was signed by the rabbi, Moses Eckstein and by the president, Samuel Neuberger. Evidently, each student picked a “motto” for their certificate. Esther chose a verse from the 23 rd Psalm, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. A hundred years later we still have a Confirmation Class and each year I ask my students to pick a verse for their Confirmation essay.
Records grow scant as the 20th century progressed. We do know that in 1919 dues were set at $30 a year. They rose to $45 by 1924. But High Holy Day seats were extra, and the ones closest to the bimah cost another $15. We no longer sell seats.
The congregation joined the Union for Reform Judaism in the 1920s and has remained in good standing since then.
On October 4, 1951, Milton Neuman, who was chair of the Eightieth Anniversary Committee of the congregation, received a congratulatory letter from President Harry Truman. Milton Neuman’s nephew, Michael Levy, is an active third generation member of our congregation. His parents and grandparents were members, and two of his grandchildren became b’nai mitzvah here.
Every time we enter this synagogue, which became our home only after a century in Hoboken, we are reminded of our origins. We pass the dedication plaque at our entrance to the left most often without noticing it. Then we enter the sanctuary and see the memorial plaques from our original building. The names of our predecessors and their loved ones are not forgotten.
We are now just over a month away from what our past president Lance Strate reminds us is our sesquicentennial. 150 Years! We made it!
The congregation persevered through the great pandemic of 1917-18. So too we persevered through the great pandemic of 2020-21.
The congregation weathered the Great Depression of the 1929. So too we weathered the Great Recession of 2009, eighty years later.
Demographic changes⏤the shrinking Jewish population of Hoboken⏤compelled the congregation to relocate after a century. Demographic changes⏤the shrinking Jewish population of Leonia and environs⏤once again challenge our future.
No doubt, Congregation Adas Emuno will have to come up with a strategic plan to address its future. But for now, as we emerge from the pandemic and as we reach our sesquicentennial, we pause to give thanks and to celebrate.
In the Torah, a half century is called a Jubilee. So this year is the triple Jubilee of our founding and our first Leonia Jubilee.
Fifty years of marriage also has a special name. So this year is the triple Golden Anniversary of our founding and our first Leonia Golden Anniversary.
I wish we could celebrate this milestone year with no restrictions. We’re not there yet. So our 150th Anniversary Committee decided not to have one gala event, but a series of anniversary celebrations spread out over the entire year. You’ll be hearing much more about them in the coming months. We decided to announce the year now at the High Holidays. The actual date of our founding, Oct. 22, happens to be a Sabbath evening this year. At that service we will dedicate a new Torah cover commissioned for the occasion. Debby has finished making that cover and so I can tell you it is special. Hanukkah, Purim, Pesach⏤all our holiday celebrations will have anniversary themed tie-ins. And, God willing, a year from October we will conclude the anniversary year with a true gala.
Milestone anniversaries are certainly a time to look back, and savor treasured memories. Our president, Michael Fishbein, assisted by others, is assembling a history of the congregation to the best of our ability, and we hope to have an exhibit later this fall to be viewed at the Leonia Library.
But I suggest that anniversaries are also a time to look forward. That is why we created the Adas Emuno 150th Anniversary Fund and launched it three years ago. Our goal was two-fold: $150,000 and 100% participation. I’m delighted to report that regarding the first, we have exceeded our goal. In fact, due to the generosity of member families, we have raised over $220,000 to bolster the creative programming and reserves of our congregation. What a tribute to our membership.
That generosity has come from approximately fifty families, or about 60% participation. Can we get to 100%? It’s not too late to give to AE 150. Please join us… at any level.
Our hardworking AE 150 committee, chaired by past-president Beth Ziff, and including past presidents Virginia Gitter, Alan Spector and Lance Strate; current president Michael Fishbein, vice-president Elka Oliver, and Susan Grey and Richard Alicchio, has not only come up with a year full of celebrations. I also happy to report that two wonderful projects have been suggested, and just approved by the Board.
The first will be an enduring physical enhancement to our synagogue⏤the creation of a patio and pergola in the space in between the Temple and our school. The patio will serve as an outdoor classroom and worship space. During the pandemic, the need for such a space became all the more apparent, and in fact, we conducted the final two sessions of school in this area. Now it will be all the more inviting and safely accessed for people of all ages. You will have the opportunity to help complete this project by having pavers inscribed with your name.
At the same time, AE 150 will also fund an exciting outreach proposal led by our amazing student cantor, designed to attract young Jewish families from the area, including dozens of Israeli-American families that moved to Bergen County from NY during the pandemic. What better time to do this than this year with Cantor Karlin!
When our founders first established this congregation in Hoboken, they were thinking about the next generation of Jewish life beyond New York. They were thinking about their children who would grow up in the new world, and speak English. They were thinking about the next generation when they established a religious school and a youth group.
When the leaders of Adas Emuno made the difficult decision to move to Leonia, they were thinking about the next generation as well. They were thinking about how Jewish life was now growing beyond the first-tier suburbs to the promising frontier of Bergen County. They knew that Congregation Adas Emuno was never big or rich and might not survive the move. But they also knew that Adas Emuno was a dedicated and down-to-earth assembly of the faithful.
So what does it mean for us to now think about our next generation? Let’s be honest. Our numbers are diminishing. The demographic tide in our little corner of the world is turning against us. Yet here we are, a progressive, inclusive Reform Jewish community. We are a congregation that welcomes interfaith households and blended families. We are a congregation that is heimish and humble. In our post-pandemic world there is no more urgent a time for creating community than now. Adas Emuno is a community.
The Talmud records the life of an unusual and remarkable sage in ancient Israel named Honi the Circlemaker. Nobody knows why he received that name, but he is said to have gone around the land of Israel planting carob trees, a Jewish Johnny Appleseed, if you will. When asked why he took upon himself such an adventure, Honi responded that one day when he was still a young man he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi said, “Old man, why are you planting that tree. Don’t you know that it takes a carob tree seventy years to bear fruit?” The man paused, looked up at him, and said, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.”
That piece of wisdom changed Honi’s life. And it just might change ours. If we embrace the realization that we are not here solely for ourselves; if we stand in gratitude for what those before us have done for us and decide to pay it forward to the next generation.
Join us for our Jubilee and Sesquicentennial. Get others to join us as well. Let us give thanks for our past while embracing our future. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.