By Devorah Wenger
"In the early 1950s I could ride my bike in the middle of North Avenue — between Morris Avenue and North Broad Street — with no problems," said Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz. "Most of those homes were not built yet."
His father, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, looked at these open fields, few houses, and small number of Jews — and had an idea.
"My father understood that the only place Elizabeth had to grow was in North Elizabeth in the Westminster section," said Rabbi Teitz. "He wanted to have a shul there so that when the community grew, the shul would be there.
Adath Israel Synagogue actually began a bit east of its current location as a storefront shul, on Madison Avenue by the North Elizabeth train station. On the other side of town was the main shul, the spiritual center of Elizabeth. To attend services there, those living on the east side of town had to walk a mile and a half along North Avenue.
Realizing he couldn't maintain two shuls on this end of town, "my father convinced the Madison Avenue shul to join forces," said Rabbi Teitz. "The name stayed, the gabbaim became the gabbaim of the new shul, and the few members – most of whom were elderly — were promised reduced rates for life."
When it was first built, the new little synagogue was not nestled in a towering forest of apartment buildings – they would be built over the next decades. At the time, only one high-rise apartment building existed, diagonally across from the shul at 14 North Avenue. Around the shul — at the intersection of North Avenue and North Broad Street — were just three houses.
"The stalwarts of the shul at that time were the Holocaust survivors," said Renee Rubin, who moved here with her husband, Rabbi Mort Rubin, from Washington DC in December of 1969. "They were the backbone of it — and they brought their families."
"We're one of the originals," said Suzie Wilf. "We moved here in 1955, about the time the shul was built. First we lived in Elizabeth for a short while, then we moved to Hillside. We built our own house — my husband (Joe) is a builder. There were many Jewish families when I moved in. There were many Europeans like myself, Holocaust survivors. It was a substantial group."
Abraham and Millie Zuckerman started out in another section of Hillside before moving closer to Adath Israel.
"We came to America with a baby in 1949," recalled Mr. Zuckerman. "We moved from Newark to Orchard Terrace in Hillside in 1952 – with another baby — and belonged to Sinai Congregation. In 1963 we moved to Surrey Road which, in those days, was the goyische section. Now it's a complete turn around – and all young people."
"I wanted to live here instead of Newark because of the JEC and Rabbi Pinchas Teitz," said Mrs. Zuckerman. "Especially having a boy — he shouldn't travel from Newark."
Around the same time as the Zuckermans, Ernest and Rose Wachtel moved from Newark.
"My children went to JEC and Bruriah," recalled Mrs. Wachtel. "My oldest, Terry, was in the first class of Bruriah."
Once the North Avenue building was in place – and Jews started moving into neighborhoods along North Avenue across the street from the shul – services started filling up.
"On an average Shabbos we had 30 people," recalled Rabbi Teitz. "On Rosh Hashana we had as many as 75 or 100 people."
In spite of the crowds, however, there was a big difference from today.
"We used to walk around the shul at Sukkos time with a total of 10 lulavim and etrogim," said Mr. Marvin Rosenzweig, who was 16 years old when his family moved from Hillside to Elizabeth in the 1970s. "Now look at what we have – men and boys walking in double file around the shul. Back then, we had a total of six or seven sukkahs on our side of town. A couple of people would have kiddushes in their sukkahs after shul. That was the Sukkah hopping of old — by adults!"
When the Rubins celebrated their first Simchat Torah here in 1970, "we invited the whole shul to our house for the evening meal, after the hakafahs," recalled Mrs. Rubin. "For several years we gave a kiddush at our home on Simchas Torah — cold cuts, deli meat."
Mr. Rosenzweig recalled the special kiddush Rabbi Rubin recited before the meal.
"It was very creative, a hodgepodge kiddush he put together – he brought in verses from all throughout Tanach, davening – then finally he went into the real kiddush."
All this was in the spirit of Simchas Torah pranks played by the youth of Adath Israel, such as mixing up the gabbai's name cards and the infamous incident involving cohanim, duchaning, and water in their shoes.
And not to be forgotten during the holidays was a visit from a special rebbe.
"Dr. (Bernie) Schanzer and Mr. (Irv) Tobin did their Schanzerer rebbe routine," said Mr. Rosenzweig. "Dr. Schanzer would mumble in Yiddish and Mr. Tobin would 'translate' into English – not necessarily the same meaning!"
Come Shavuot, there was all-night learning that began at the Schanzers' house.
"After we finished there, we go on to learn the rest of the night," said Mr. Rosenzweig. "What began as a lecture or two at night transformed into an all-nighter, supplemented by learning with the kollel."
As the children grew, they attended school together, and celebrated bar mitzvahs and weddings.
The birth of the North Avenue shul was actually a twin birth.
"It was founded at the same time we started our Mesivta, which it housed for the first three years," said Rabbi Teitz.
Opening day for Congregation Adath Israel on North Avenue was Rosh Hashana, 1955. This was quite a feat, given that the groundbreaking was in December – less than a year earlier.
"When we were building the building, we needed lots of support," said Mr. Zuckerman. "We were three partners in the construction business, and we donated the concrete blocks. Most of the people who attended shul were in construction."
The building's original layout reflected its early life as a school. The main entrance opened upon a long narrow hallway that ran the length of the building. (The location of the original front door is marked by the white siding to the left of the current entrance.) On either side of the hallway were classrooms.
The larger of the two classrooms, the one closest to the kitchen, housed Kiddush and Shalosh Seudas. It held about 30 people. The cost for sponsoring kiddush back in the early days was $20 — and included cake, whiskey and herring.
"Whoever decided to make a kiddush would ask my boys to help set it up," said Helen Walzer, who moved here with her growing family in the early 1960s.
In 1955, in order to enter the sanctuary, from the hallway one had a choice of two doors. The door to the right led directly to the stairs to the women's section. The door to the left opened into an antechamber behind the sanctuary.
"That back area was completely closed off," said Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz. "There was a tallis rack, two bookcases and a washing sink back there. From this area there were four doors — two to the men's section, and one on each corner to the women's sections."
In the fall of 1957 the high school moved into its new location at the Jewish Educational Center and, as the years passed and the congregation grew, the building went through several stages of renovations combining small classrooms to create larger rooms.
"We needed the space," said Mr. Sam Halpern, who moved from the other side of town with his wife, Gladys, in the early 1970s. "More people came in, and we decided we must have more room. We bought the property, built it up. Everybody wanted the congregation to grow. We always looked for what we could do to make the synagogue better, nicer, more elegant. We made sure to provide all the comforts. We asked, 'What is needed for a successful shul, elegant and Jewish?"
Unlike the filled-to-capacity crowd at holiday services, daily morning minyan was a struggle. Further, In the winter, in order not to heat up the entire building for weekday morning services, the minyan met in Bruriah. High school boys would help make the minyan, and after services they would get a ride to school with Rabbi Teitz.
Then, about 25 years ago, Rabbi Teitz instituted Daf Yomi in the morning.
"My husband got up early in the morning to go to Daf Yomi," said Mrs. Walzer of Arthur, who died in 1987. In spite of the fact that his early education was from a "storefront Talmud Torah," Mr. Walzer was able to keep up by studying every evening to understand the material.
"Rabbi Teitz wondered if my husband was able to follow," recalled Mrs. Walzer. "He realized that, as he came each morning, he was asking questions, following the complex discussion. He would go in the morning, then go to work. When he came home from work, he was often called to help make the minyan. I thought, 'Daf Yomi – this is killing me!' But he loved it, absolutely loved it."
Even towards the end of his life, Mr. Walzer still walked to shul each morning. Mr. Sam Verstaendig found a way to help him out.
"When Mr. Verstaendig saw my husband was ill, he would find an excuse to bring his own car and drive my husband home," recalled Mrs. Walzer. "He did it in such a way so as not to embarrass my husband."
The proximity to Newark Liberty International Airport has had some interesting benefits for the congregation.
"We have people popping in for davening in the morning because they're waiting for a flight," said Mr. Rosenzweig. "Or people wind up here for a Shabbos because they get stuck on their way somewhere. My family hosted some Israelis for Shabbos here – and we're still friendly with them five years later."
Formal Shabbat and holiday morning youth programming is a new phenomenon for Adath Israel. Before that, "children stayed with us in the sanctuary," said Mrs. Wachtel. "My youngest was eight when we first moved."
There were so few children even into the 1970s, "I could count them on two hands," said Mrs. Rubin. "The few children who were there either stayed in the sanctuary or ran around outside."
"My husband used to take the kids to synagogue," recalled Mrs. Walzer. "I stayed home with the baby. Whoever sat next to my husband – in the row right in front of the bima — behaved themselves."
"We had a nice group of teenagers," recalled Mr. Rosenzweig. "Some still come back to visit once in a while. About 10 of us boys used to learn Shabbos afternoon with a retired shochet, Rabbi Moshe Fecher, who made aliyah in his 80s. That was the youth program of the day. And we always had nice influx of young people who would participate in giving shiurim. There has always been that spark of guys who kept things going by helping out with shiurim."
When the eruv was created in March of 1984 – with the stipulation that it be down one Shabbat per year — the neighborhoods around Adath Israel really started attracting families with young children.
During the 1970s the congregation created "Friends of Adath Israel." Families active in the genesis of the Friends included the Schanzers, Weissbergers and Warners.
"They had Friday night and Shabbos afternoon events," said Mr. Rosenzweig. "In the wintertime on Friday night, they'd have a guest speaker. We also used to have games, quizzes, contests, zemirot. It got people together."
The Friends also developed Perek on the Lawn as a community-wide get-together on Shabbat summer afternoons for learning and mingling.
Most recently, Friends has transformed into the board of Adath Israel – although the corporate name "Friends of Adath Israel" still exists.
The most recent expansion,done in 2000 and funded heavily by Mrs. Gloria Weissberg, significantly altered the building. An extension was added, doubling the size of the back room to its current kiddush-room dimensions and adding the basement. The newly-expanded building was named in honor of her husband, Jesse, one of the founding members of the JEC, and one of the original members of Adath Israel — as well as its treasurer.
The North Avenue building is also home to the Minyan S'faradim and the Yeshiva and Kollel Be'er Yitzchak.
The Sephardic minyan began in the mid-1990s with a twofold mission – to give Sephardic families the opportunity to have services in a way familiar to them, and to give their children a chance to grow up with Sephardic prayer.
The kollel also had its genesis in a need, as explained by Danny Kahane, who helped found the kollel about seven years ago.
"This town needed a kollel that would give extra education to college students who wanted to study half a day, then learn in a religious institution for half a day," he said. "This would also be for people who work half a day and want to learn half a day." The JEChired Rabbi Avrohom Schulman as head of the kollel, a position he continues to hold.
In addition to changes in the North Avenue building and its people, over the past five decades the shul has seen a transition in rabbinical leadership.
"Rabbi Pinchas Teitz was the one who had the vision," said Mr. Zuckerman. "He was the right person for us because we were just getting out of the camps. We needed somebody, a shoulder to lean on. He was the one to inspire us in a very beautiful way. He didn't look at how religious people were. It didn't matter. That's how he got all this support. All these people built these projects for the synagogue and for the JEC."
Rabbi Pinchas Teitz was rav of the entire city of Elizabeth, which included Adath Israel. When Rabbi Elazar M. and Elisheva Teitz married in January of 1958, they settled into Elizabeth where Rabbi Teitz assisted his father in the running of both aspects of the JEC — shul and school. But the shul with which he was primarily associated was Adath Israel. Their son, Eliyahu, in turn assisted his father in his various rabbinical responsibilities.
As the school became more complex and the synagogue grew, Rabbi Eliyahu devoted his time to the school, stepping down from the rabbinate in September, 2004.
The growth of Adath Israel opened the way for the North Avenue shul to have a spiritual leader devoted exclusively to its needs. By Rosh Hashana, 2004, Rabbi Jonathan Schwartz was in place and, over the last four years, he and the Adath Israel board have set up various new committees and programs.
For 50 years Adath Israel has been doing "everything a synagogue is supposed to," said Mr. Halpern. "Shabbos minyan, daily minyan, Chumash, Talmud.
"I have a very emotional feeling about this synagogue," he added. "I'm a religious Jew, so I love all synagogues. The community is a beautiful community, thanks to the synagogue. We saw this synagogue keep our neighborhood nice. We're very proud of it."
Mrs. Walzer noted the changes in the congregation itself.
"All of a sudden this year I looked around and saw so many new faces – I feel like I'm the different one," she laughed. "The new faces are what we should be having for the shul. We needed that shot in the arm and I'm thrilled we're not dying away as a community."
"I have grown up in this one square mile," said Mr. Rosenzweig. "Few others have seen more people come and go than I have in this community. Right now things are going well, thank God. I want to keep the momentum going."
"This has been a great community," added Mrs. Walzer. "I would never live any other place!"