Early Ups and Downs

On Friday, December 2, 2022, Adath continued its celebration of 100 years with a centennial instrumental Shabbat evening service focused on our history from the 1920s and 1930s. These were the first two decades of Adath’s existence, when things were rocky.

The threats came both from the outside and the inside. First, Adath had to contend with the Great Depression just 6 years after our founding and only 3 years after the completion of the building on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton. I found in the Linder Archives a document called “The Adath Israel Congregation Story by Samuel R. Lavine” written around 1955. He notes that the depression years were hard. In his words, “the finances during those fateful, history-making years was insufficient to cover the successful operation of the synagogue.”

But even before that the synagogue struggled. In 1928, a year before the stock market crash and still in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Lavine writes that Adath could not pay Cantor Asher Goldenberg’s salary for 12 weeks.

The synagogue was saddled with a mortgage on it’s new building, finished in 1926, the complete cost of which was $98,236.70 (the equivalent of $1,653,995.22 in 2022 dollars). Even burdened with the “overwhelming mortgage”, according to Lavine:

The Adath Israel Congregation weathered the “stormy” years of the depression——1929, 1930 and 1931——with the aid and patience of the president, Solomon Urken, Zalman B’reb Yeshua Urken, and the Board of Trustees. The Sisterhood was a source of strength in those days to those courageous men, coming forward with financial aid at critical times.

Eventually, Adath’s pioneers survived the most difficult of times to triumph in 1944 with a mortgage burning celebration.

The synagogue had internal challenges as well. The shul’s first full-time rabbi was Samuel Rosenblatt, son of the famous Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt who played himself in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Such was the popularity of cantorial music in the 1920s that the film featured a scene of Rosenblatt performing in a Chicago theater.

Cantor Rosenblatt also performed a concert at Adath during the tenure of his son, but alas the synagogue was not a good match for Rabbi Rosenblatt who did not approve of Adath allowing men and women to sit together. He left after one year and went to Baltimore to help build one of the flagship Modern Orthodox synagogues where he served for many years.

Adath’s next rabbi, Leon Liebreich, was a much better fit, and he stayed for 18 years, helping build the congregation. The question of tradition was still a contentious one. Lavine, in his history, notes that many older members of the community did not like the modern take on Judaism by the new Conservative congregation. I found a 1927 resignation letter from Harry Entin on the letterhead of Mercer Bag & Burlap Co.:

I had joined your congregation with the full belief that you were going to have a strictly Orthodox Congregation; my acquaintance and friendship for so many years, with most of the members of the Congregation, warranted that belief. I had hoped that the true, genuine spirit of Shem- orthodoxy, would be clothed in the beauty of Yefeth- modernism.

Entin used the sons of the Biblical Noah to make his point. Shem is considered the progenitor of the Jewish people (and the origin of the term Semitic). Yefeth is associated with Greece which was then extended to any non-Jewish wisdom, including modern America. Entin’s phrase echoes that of the Talmud: “the words of Yefeth shall be in the tents of Shem” (Megillah 9b), but for him there needed to be a more limited application of modernism.

There were also some less ideological arguments that are familiar to anyone who has ever belonged to a synagogue. Shul politics can often drive away leaders, and these issues caused Harry Siegel to write a long resignation letter in 1929. He was upset that people called him a “criticiser”, and no one appreciated all he had done to found the shul:

You see, gentlemen; while I do not profess to be the best Jew in existence nor even the most religious Jew in our Synagogue, yet when I have thrown myself into the organizing of it and the establishment of a religious home, little did I dream that it would be a house of underhanded policies instead of a house worship, a house of intrigues instead of a house of the Lord, a community of petty business instead of a community of good will and honest thought. When once I determined to serve my God, I determined to serve Him with all sincerity and with no two ways about it. You see, gentlemen, I never considered it a place where one could show the other that he is either bigger, better or otherwise. I feel that I have always tried to go along with the conservative idea, but only to the extent of righteousness and justice.

As a postscript, I did not find Harry Entin in the Adath database, but Adath does still mark the yahrzeit of Harry Siegel who died in 1956. According to great-nieces (and Adath members) Bernice Abramovich and Brenda Solomon, Siegel’s resignation only lasted a short time. He remained a member until his death, and his daughter, as the oldest current member, was the given the honor of being the first person to enter Adath’s new building in Lawrenceville in 1991.

In spite of our differences, we can come together and mend the breach. That is what our community was doing in the 1920s and 30s and it is what we are still doing today. We go through cycles, ups and downs, but when we stick to our principles and believe in each other we can be incredibly successful.