A Jewish Story

Adath celebrated our history during the 1940s and 1950s at a centennial instrumental Shabbat evening service Friday, February 3, 2023.

The prototypical Jewish story is a tale of a people somehow surviving difficult situations and thriving. This ever-dying people has persevered for over 2000 years. We have seen our fair share of miracles, but we have also embraced the mundanities of daily existence. This contrast is the story of Adath Israel Congregation in the 1940s and 50s: a time when our community witnessed the horrors of World War II, the devastation of the Holocaust, but also the joy of the allied victory in the war and the creation of the State of Israel. Through it all the congregation had to do the work of religious services, education, and community building.

Adath Members received a postcard a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor dated December 30th, 1941:

President Roosevelt has issued a proclamation calling on all of us to devote the first of the New Year to a National Day of Prayer. We have, therefore, thought it most appropriate to arrange a special service on Friday evening, January 2nd, at 8 promptly, to join with our fellow-citizens of other faiths and to give expression to our patriotic fervor in these days. Please set all other matters aside to perform a religious and patriotic act by your presence at worship Friday evening. Bring your family and friends. A special address by our Rabbi entitled “Remember!” will be delivered in keeping with the nature of the service.

According to the “The Adath Israel Congregation Story by Samuel R. Lavine”:

The use of the Adath Israel synagogue was offered to the local Defense Council for whatever purpose they deemed necessary during the war: shelter, feeding place, and Red Cross classes … The synagogue was used for several of these purposes, especially Red Cross work during the war.

The war affected everyone in the congregation. There is a moving letter in the Adath Israel News of May 1945 entitled “Passover in France” by ‘‘one of our boys’’ named Gerald Cohan sent to the rabbi at the time, Leon Liebreich:

Since I’ve been in France, I’ve also had some very pleasant memories, as well as some not so pleasant, connected with visiting synagogues. I spent Rosh Hashonoh in a synagogue in the war-torn city of Verdun. The Nazis had used the Shul the past four years as a mess hall and this was the first service to be held there since its liberation. The ark had been burnt and all the Torahs destroyed by the Germans. It was quite a gruesome atmosphere but with the aid of a crude table and a miniature Torah we managed to conduct a service. We, in our muddy fatigues, steel helmets, and carrying rifles, weren’t any better dressed than our Shul. but over here you don’t think of things like that. There is something much deeper that draws us together to celebrate our holidays where we can in the best way possible. We were thankful for what we had.

Our Seder this past week in Reims was a magnificent affair. The food, supplied by the army and prepared by the Jewish civilians, was absolutely kosher and cooked with that very special touch that only we who have gone without it so long can appreciate. These French people are so grateful and they can’t seem to do enough for us to show their gratefulness. Really wonderful people.

Hitler himself in an ironic way helped to make our Seder a success. The glass bowls which we used for soup dishes were originally tops of German mines designed to blow us all to pieces.

Cohan eventually owned and operated Greenwood Cleaners in Trenton and Levittown and went on to serve on the board of Adath. He died in 2004 and is buried at Fountain Lawn Memorial Park

The synagogue also did what it could to help bring about the creation of the State of Israel. According to Lavine:

On February 6, 1944, the Adath Israel Congregation signed a resolution addressed to the President of the United States … “with the earnest appeal that all appropriate action be taken to insure the withdrawal in its entirety of the Palestine White Paper of May 1939, and its unjustifiable restrictions on immigration and land settlement …”

Adath received a letter dated January 9, 1948, from the Jewish Federation of Trenton stating:

You will find enclosed our check for $40,000, in repayment of the loan which your organization so kindly made to us recently, in order that we might be able to send a similar amount to the United Jewish Appeal so that they could use it promptly to meet their terrific needs.

No doubt these funds, equivalent in purchasing power to over $530,000 in 2023, were used to help the nascent Jewish community in Palestine following the United Nation’s vote for the Partition Plan on November 29, 1947. The loan was an astonishing amount of money considering that Adath was always struggling itself. The synagogue had raised that money to build the school wing extension of the Bellevue Avenue building.

Over the years Adath continued to work for and support Israel. The shul hosted a Mass Meeting for Israel on Tuesday, November 29, 1955 (the 8th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan vote). The ad for the event reads:

Israel, the dream of 1900 years come true, stands in mortal danger of being destroyed. YOU can save it. YES, YOU. Come to this meeting and give your moral support … WILL YOU BE COUNTED?

During this time Adath was also just a regular synagogue bursting with life, growing in the postwar boom and in need of a new addition for the building. The school wing was dedicated January 4-6, 1952. At Shabbat services the guest cantor was Rev. Isaac Wall of Har Zion Synagogue who died in 2021 at the age of 103 after an amazing 90-year career as a hazzan. He was joined by the Adath Israel Choir under the direction of Dr. Harry Prebluda. That same weekend there was also an Indoor Doggie Roast with the USY and something called a Frostee Frolic Dedication Dance. The festivities on Sunday included a Presentation of Keys and a Dedication Cantata called “A Dream Come True” written by Rhoda Nochumson. All three rabbis in Adath’s history spoke: Samuel Rosenblatt, Liebreich, and the current Rabbi S. Joshua Kohn.

As is still the case today, Adath worked hard to get people in the door. There is a postcard from 1936 that reads:

Adath Israel Men’s Club
Hypnotism and Applied Psychology
Even those who have seen this performance before, will be thrilled by its many new features including an HYPNOTIC BROADCAST

On January 9, 1942, Rabbi Liebreich spoke on the topic: “Red, White, and Blue Herring–An Answer.” I wish we had some record of the talk because I really want the answer although in truth, I don’t fully understand the question.

Maybe my favorite ad from the time is a postcard for a special “Jewish Information Please” program to follow Friday services that ends with the fantastic tag line:

Make Friday Night Synagogue Night.

Sometime around 1953 Lavine wrote that:

Adath Israel stands as a monument of the Jewish Renaissance in America. It stands as a source of strength in the realization that Conservative Judaism is a potent force that will preserve the spiritual values of the Jewish people; that the historic role of the Jew and his mission to the world will become a living influence to himself and to his neighbors; that Judaism has again become an adventure in good living——a way of life.

Certainly, the congregation experienced the deep lows as well as the incredible highs of the 1940s and 50s. It was the Jewish story of survival – of challenges, disaster, rebirth, and a deep appreciation for blessing of miracles.