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Brothers of Israel Shul Celebrates 125 Years of Change and Constancy

June 19, 2008 By:
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Brothers of Israel past presidents (from left): Scott Gilinsky, Madeline Sturm, Victor Giuffre (now the current president), Ellier Russ, Joan Hersch and Fred Young

Slightly more than a year after Congregation Brothers of Israel traded an urban New Jersey address for a suburban one in Pennsylvania, the Conservative congregation has celebrated its 125th anniversary with a gala dinner. The major milestone, reached last month, presented an opportunity for members to look back at its long history in Trenton and consider its future in Newtown, Bucks County.

"Even if the synagogue moved 100 miles away, I'd drive the 100 miles," said Victor Giuffre, synagogue president.

After years of weighing whether or not to follow its membership from Trenton into the suburbs, Brothers of Israel finally relocated to Newtown in February 2007, shortly after it purchased and renovated an 8,000-square-foot building that had belonged to the Newtown Assembly of God Church. That development came after the synagogue had won a protracted zoning dispute to construct a new building in Langhorne; the congregation abandoned those plans in the wake of fervent community opposition.

But in the end, everything worked out for the best, according to Giuffre. Rather than having to go through several more years of fundraising and construction, they were able to cross the Delaware almost immediately.

While Giuffre acknowledged that some New Jersey families chose not to continue their membership, the synagogue has gained almost 40 new Bucks County families, bringing the total number of families to approximately 200.

With that addition, the religious school has swelled to capacity. To alleviate the overflow, the congregation plans to spend roughly $100,000 to add several modular classrooms, he said.

And that's not all.

Brothers of Israel also recently purchased an adjacent eight-acre, $630,000 property for the purposes of expanding the building at a later date.

"At some point, we need to put in a social hall. And we can't hold High Holiday services in the building yet, because there's not enough space," said Giuffre. "It's just a question of trying to make it better. This is my religious home."

But such construction remains in the future; the congregation hasn't yet begun a capital campaign or commissioned any architectural plans.

The synagogue's history began in Trenton back on June 2, 1883, when a small group of Eastern European immigrants -- all men -- signed the charter of Hachaino B'nai Israelites, which became one of the first Orthodox synagogues in the Garden State's capital. Four years later, the congregation purchased a building on Union Street, and while that structure would be razed and replaced by a new synagogue in 1900, the site would remain the congregation's home until 1955, when it would move once again.

The mid-1950s is when many things began to change. First, the synagogue underwent a transition from Orthodox to Conservative, a move that prompted the rabbi at the time to resign in protest. Then came the groundbreaking for a new building on Greenwood Avenue, followed by the adoption of the new name, Congregation Brothers of Israel, a loose English translation of the earlier nomenclature.

In 1961, Howard Hersch became the rabbi. He's still there, a whopping 47 years later.

Hersch noted that, in 1961, many things remained from the congregation's Orthodox past: Women weren't allowed to read from the Torah or receive aliyahs. He explained that things changed gradually, and that, by the mid-1970s, the synagogue was much more egalitarian in its practices.

In the late 1960s -- when membership was at its height numerically -- the synagogue received a federal grant to establish the Trent Center, a senior residential complex. At the time, it was inhabited largely by Jews, but that's no longer the case. Even though the congregation has left Trenton, a synagogue committee still oversees that complex.

Hersch noted that the exodus from the Trenton area was a decades-long demographic shift among Jews from urban locales to suburban ones, and that the synagogue had been considering a move for quite some time before it initiated its plans.

"In Judaism, you have to adapt, otherwise you can't survive. The lesson for our people is also the lesson for our synagogue," said the 70-year-old. "This anniversary has great significance. We have a past, and that past enables us to build our future."

Synagogue vice president Barbara Wishnow, who joined the synagogue in 1972 and who lives in Lower Makefield Township in Bucks County, said that the move has ensured that the shul will remain vibrant in years to come: "It's a family in the true sense of the word. Everyone feels like mispachah. I know that sounds corny, but it's true."

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