One hundred years ago, 10 Jewish newcomers to western Monmouth County planted the seeds of the First Hebrew Farmers Association in Perrineville. Little by little, more Jewish families joined in tending the growing community crop in the bucolic farming town, some of them Holocaust survivors, others New Yorkers seeking a more placid life far from urban bustle.
Today, more than 130 families are celebrating the yield of their dedicated labors: the 100th anniversary of what is now called the Perrineville Jewish Center. Members attend services and youngsters study in the Hebrew school in the same quaint, unpretentious building built by the founders. On Saturday, Nov. 20, shul members and descendants of the founders will gather at a centennial gala in Manalapan.
Members of all ages share an undying devotion to the center’s rich history. Many of the oldest members have moved to retirement communities in neighboring towns — towns with much larger and fancier synagogues. “I wouldn’t dream of going to another shul,” said member Robert Kessler.
“My roots are too deep to go anywhere else,” said the East Windsor resident and Perrineville native, who was born in 1922 on his parents’ 100-acre vegetable farm.
Kessler said he has fond memories of a childhood in which there was no electricity, telephones, or indoor plumbing. His mother drove a horse and buggy to town for supplies.
“I feel very fortunate to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our Jewish community,” he said. “I remember my bar mitzva at the Perrineville Jewish Center like it was yesterday. We didn’t have a caterer and didn’t spend thousands of dollars. We brought in homemade cakes, wine, and whiskey — and had a wonderful time.”
Sylvia Hadad of Monroe traces her Perrineville roots to her grandparents, Anna and Jacob Bittner, who settled there in 1920. Until the community grew, Hadad said, she was the only Jewish child in her elementary school class. “When relatives visited us from New York, they always asked what Perrineville could possibly offer a young girl like me,” she said. “For me it was home, so I stayed put, and things worked out just fine.”
During her youth there, streets were not paved, and her father’s spring ritual was to haul cars out of the mud. Today the streets bear the names of some of the Jewish community founders, including Agress, Bittner, Merkin, Mach, and Soden.
“From a small nucleus, the Perrineville Jewish Center is now a much larger organization, which perhaps parallels the continuity of the Jewish people,” said Beverly Mach Geller of East Windsor, who grew up on a vegetable farm in the same town. “Friendships were very tight and long-lasting. As kids, it was the center of Jewish life for us. We’d fall asleep on the chairs while our parents had meetings or played cards.”
For Holocaust survivor Henry Eisenberg, coming to Perrineville after the war marked the beginning of a better life. “I felt very close with the people. They welcomed us so warmly, and I began to feel like a human being again,” said Eisenberg, who now lives in Lakewood. He was instrumental in hiring the shul’s first rabbi, an army chaplain from Fort Dix who came twice a week to teach the children. Since 1989, the center has been led by Rabbi Sheldon Schevelowitz.
“I congratulate our synagogue,” said the rabbi, “in passing many different historical time zones to remain a still strong, viable institution in providing Jewish services, culture, and spirituality” to its members, the community, and beyond.
For new members, the shul’s haimische feel is part of its charm. “The center was built by volunteers, which is exactly the same 100 years later,” said Judy Zodkoy of Millstone, who joined the temple three years ago and volunteers as programming coordinator. Last month she presented a Perrineville Jewish Center timeline at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County’s History Day. “Even today, the only paid employee at our shul is the rabbi,” Zodkoy said. “We mop the floors, clean the restrooms, and fix the roof. It’s important to me that this sense of community continue.”
The shul has shifted over the years from Orthodox to a “mixed seating traditional service,” said president Robert Deitz of Millstone. “My family and I settled in this area after living in London, Washington, DC, and Detroit. We saw this tiny and very accepting place called the Perrineville Jewish Center, and it was exactly the kind of balance we wanted.”