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History of Congregation B'nai Israel

Congregation B'nai Israel of Toms River, NJ is a vibrant Conservative Jewish synagogue. Its history goes back over a century to the time when Toms River was mainly a farming community that included a number of Jewish families. Most operated chicken farms, primarily to sell eggs, although some also grew crops. 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 what they called Community House at the corner of Old Freehold Road and Whitty Road. It became the place to go for meetings, cultural events and Jewish religious services. It was never intended to be a synagogue, since many of the "pioneers"—as they were later referred to—strongly identified as non-religious or “cultural,” including a number with Socialist and Communist leanings. There was no Jewish school for children at the time, so some families would regularly take their children on the arduous journey to the better-established Jewish community in Lakewood. The religious services which did take place at the Community House at the time were of a "do-it-yourself" style, for, except on the High Holy Days, there was no rabbi or cantor to set standards, teach and give guidance.

With the rise of Hitler in the 1930s came a wave of Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe. Many of the earlier Jewish pioneers had been assisted by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and, now too, some received aid from HIAS. Others received loans from the Jewish Agricultural Society to purchase chicken farms in the area. They supported one another, and in that way the local Jewish community flourished.

By the 1940s the population of the Toms River area was continuing to grow. The increase included Jewish people as well, and they established retail businesses and entered various professions. Many of the new families felt that their Jewish needs were not being 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 famously quoted as declaring, "I will not raise Jewish barbarians here!"

Congregation B'nai Israel was formally established in 1950, and, conducting its 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 called the Talmud Torah. The new congregation immediately searched for a rabbi to lead them. Rabbi Seymour Panitz was engaged and served for a year, followed by Rabbi Morris Appleman for two years. Then came a year with no rabbi at all.

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. Rabbi Rabinowitz and his own children initiated a youth group for the teenagers, and, under his leadership, more families joined. In 1958 Rabbi Rabinowitz was joined by Cantor Chaim Wasserman. By then B'nai Israel was outgrowing the the Community House, so it embarked upon a building campaign. After much effort, the congregation purchased two chicken farms directly across Old Freehold Road and built a beautiful synagogue upon that land. Its new building was dedicated on December 25, 1959. In 1960 Cantor Joseph Thaw replaced Cantor Wasserman and remained for four years. Rabbi Rabinowitz retired in 1961.

During the first eight years of B'nai Israel, even before the building was constructed, the president of the congregation was Dr. Solomon Soloff. In 1959 the honor of moving B'nai Israel into its new synagogue building went to Soloff's successor, Irving Rosen, who served as president from 1958 to 1960. At the same time, during the first decade of Congregation B'nai Israel, the women of B'nai Israel founded an active and vibrant Sisterhood, and its first presidents were Mary Kassenoff, Yetta Soloff and Dorothy Goldman.

In the early 1980s, under the pulpit leadership of Rabbi Richard Hammerman and Cantor Daniel Green , 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.

Today, CBI is lead by Rabbi William Gershon who returned to the Jersey Shore in 2018 after years on the pulpit of large synagogues in Texas and the mid-west.  With Rabbi's spiritual and religious leadership, CBI remains the Premier Conservative Synagogue at the Jersey Shore.

The Rabbis and Cantors of CBI

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784