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The Story of Congregation B'nai Israel

Congregation B'nai Israel of Toms River, NJ is a vibrant Conservative Jewish synagogue, whose history goes back over a century. In 1920 Toms River was mainly a farming community, and it included a number of Jewish families. Most of them owned and operated chicken farms, primarily to sell eggs, although some grew crops as well. Some were refugees from eastern Europe, while others, from North Jersey and New York City, wanted to own and work the land. In the early 1920s they established the Toms River Community of Jewish Farmers, as well as a Jewish cemetery. With their own hands the members constructed a beautiful building at the corner of Old Freehold Road and Whitty Road. Everyone called it the Community House, and it became the place to go for meetings, cultural events and Jewish religious services. It was never intended to be primarily a synagogue, since many of the "pioneers"—as they were later referred to—strongly identified as non-religious, cultural Jews, including a number with Socialist and Communist leanings. For Jewish education some would make an arduous trek to the longer-established Jewish community in Lakewood, for there was no Jewish school for children at the Community House. The religious services which did take place in Toms River were lay-led and of a "do-it-yourself" style, and there was no rabbi or cantor to set standards and give guidance, except on the High Holy Days.

By the 1940s the general population of the Toms River area was continuing to grow. The increase in population attracted Jewish people as well, and they established retail businesses and entered various professions. Because of this, there were now families whose Jewish needs were not being fully met by the mostly cultural approach of the Toms River Community of Jewish Farmers. On May 25, 1949, a group of thirty religiously-minded Jewish individuals—including some from the Community’s Religious Committee—gathered at the Community House to organize what is now Congregation B'nai Israel. Their objective was that the new congregation—this time with a rabbi—should satisfy the religious needs of all Jewish families living in Toms River, and it was to include Jewish education for adults as well as children. Instrumental in this effort were Dr. Solomon Soloff, an optometrist, and his wife, Yetta. She was quoted as declaring, "I will not raise Jewish barbarians here!"

Congregation B'nai Israel was formally established in 1950, and, still conducting activities at the Community House, joined what is now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The original membership of B'nai Israel consisted of 120 families, including 28 young students. Its religious school was and still is referred to as the Talmud Torah. The new congregation immediately searched for a rabbi to lead them. Rabbi Seymour Panitz was engaged and served for one year, followed by Rabbi Morris Appleman for two years.  In 1954 Rabbi Simcha Rabinowitz arrived. He brought new ideas and stability, and, along with his dynamic wife and family, served the congregation for seven years. His priority was the Talmud Torah, and he set high standards for the children as well as for the congregation itself. He and his own children also initiated a youth group for the teenagers, and, under his leadership, more families joined. B'nai Israel soon outgrew the facilities of the Toms River Community of Jewish Farmers and embarked upon a building campaign. After a multi-year effort, the new congregation purchased two chicken farms directly across Old Freehold Road from the Community House and built a beautiful synagogue upon that land. Its new building was dedicated on December 25, 1959.

It is interesting that Congregation B'nai Israel decided early on to establish a cemetery, because the Toms River Community of Jewish Farmers already had its own cemetery nearby, and B'nai Israel presumably could have arranged to share burial privileges there. Yet, not only did the congregation purchase land for their own cemetery, they chose property contiguous with the existing Jewish cemetery, having a 580-foot border in common. In view of this, it seems strange that no connection—not even a walkway—was ever made to join the two cemeteries.

The Jewish community of Toms River continued to grow, as did the membership of Congregation B'nai Israel, eventually reaching 500 families. In 1973, Rabbi Potok and Cantor Green took a historic step into the future, directing the path of the congregation toward the liberal side of Conservative Judaism. Until they arrived, the centuries-old tradition had been upheld in which only men—and no women—were counted as part of a minyan, and only men were permitted to be honored with an aliyah to the Torah. Some Conservative synagogues in the United States had recently moved toward gender equality, and a number of B'nai Israel congregants were strongly motivated to join them.

In 1975 Rabbi Potok departed, but Cantor Green remained with Congregation B'nai Israel, and the position of rabbi was then accepted by Richard A. Hammerman. As clergy partners, Rabbi Hammerman and Cantor Green became a true "dynamic duo," sharing their visions for the future as well as their ongoing responsibilities. Under their joint leadership, the congregation again grew and flourished. Together they conducted religious services, making it the norm—even to this day—for both women and men to be offered equal opportunities in all religious contexts, including being counted for a minyan and being honored with aliyot to the Torah. Hammerman and Green also officiated at weddings, funerals, shiva services and unveilings; visited congregants in hospitals and nursing homes; participated in interfaith services and forums; and much more. Also notable among their innovations was a triennial system of Torah readings, as well as the frequent chanting of select portions of the Bible in English with traditional melodies.

In the early 1980s, under Rabbi Hammerman's leadership, Congregation B'nai Israel was growing again and in need of even more space. After a fundraising campaign, a beautiful addition to the synagogue building was constructed, doubling it in size. B'nai Israel congregant Lawrence Simpson, an accomplished commercial builder, expertly oversaw the construction, and the new addition was dedicated on October 9, 1983.  Also at that time, a care fund was established to assist needy congregants, and an endowment fund was established to provide financial support for the congregation's education plans. As the result of the foresight of B'nai Israel's leadership, today the Education Endowment Fund generates enough income to sustain the Talmud Torah, enabling free education for the children of all congregants. That fund also enables the congregation to award scholarships to high school students for a summer program in Israel. Congregation B'nai Israel has always had, and continues to promote, its own local chapters of Kadima and United Synagogue Youth (USY), the teenage youth groups of the Conservative Movement.

In 2006, after serving Congregation B'nai Israel for 31 years with accomplishment and honor, Rabbi Richard Hammerman retired, and the congregation bestowed upon him the title of Rabbi Emeritus. Cantor Daniel Green, who had served B'nai Israel for 33 years, also retired at that time and was honored with the title of Cantor Emeritus. They were succeeded by Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields and Hazzan Steven Walvick until their departures in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Our new dynamic clergy has brought a new life into CBI, as Rabbi William Gershon joined us in 2018 as an interim and Cantor Jacob Greenberg in 2019 as an intern.  Both elevated to permanent positions in 2020, under extreme conditions, but seamlessly took the congregants into a warm and welcome virtual sanctuary during the pandemic.  As we return to the actual sanctuary, they continue to inspire and enrich us daily. For more information, please review their pages.

Thu, June 8 2023 19 Sivan 5783