Jerome and Phyllis Kurshan and Marion Epstein still remember the first Shabbat of the then newly formed Jewish Center of Princeton.
Twenty-five families davened at that inaugural service, held in a storefront on Spring Street on Dec. 11, 1949.
Exactly 60 years later, a crowd of more than 300 attended a gala dinner to mark the occasion.
Epstein and her late husband, Jess — who twice served as congregation president — moved to Princeton in 1943, where they attended services at a small Orthodox storefront synagogue. When larger numbers of Jews arrived after World War II, some of the families decided to branch out and form The Jewish Center.
Epstein, in her 90s, is proud of the progress the congregation has made since she and her husband helped cofound it.
“It’s been a very special place,” she said in a phone interview. “We were always interested in having a vibrant Jewish community and wanted something there for our children.”
Epstein does not get to the center much these days; she doesn’t live in Princeton, nor does she drive any more. But at the Dec. 11 celebration she spoke to the guests about the history of Princeton’s Jewish community.
“My husband would have been thrilled and wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “There was a very lovely spirit [at the dinner] and an enthusiasm that I haven’t seen in many years.”
The Kurshans were also kvelling over last month’s event. The center boasts a membership of almost 700 families, a far cry from the original 25.
“The first service we attended, there was no Jewish Center,” said Phyllis Kurshan. “The growth has been unbelievable. We couldn’t believe the number of people who came to the dinner; if we had more room, we probably would have had even more.”
Jerome Kurshan, 90, and the only living male founder, is a retired physicist with RCA Laboratories in Princeton; Phyllis Kurshan is a former first-grade teacher in Plainsboro. “On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we have so many people, we actually have services at the Riverside School,” she said. “We have land next door that we’ve acquired,” said Jerome Kurshan.
The couple’s two children attended the synagogue’s religious school; their son, Neil, is now a rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in New York.
Jesse Treu, who was installed as president in June 2009, is a relative newcomer; he and his family joined in 1986. He said he was drawn to the congregation because of its “wonderful rabbi and nice people and good services and program; it was a natural choice.
“The Jewish Center is an intellectually stimulating place,” said Treu, a venture capitalist. “It’s a very forward-looking synagogue in terms of egalitarianism; we were early into the egalitarian movement and we continue with that process.”
Rabbi Adam Feldman joined the Jewish Center in the summer of 2005. “This is a wonderful congregation, very involved in the community, lots of programming, a place that cares about education,” he said. “We have members of the local government in our congregation. One of the other things we’re proud of is our relationship with the greater religious community in Princeton.”
The congregation, originally known as B’nai Zion, moved into a storefront on Witherspoon Street in 1926; previously, the few Jews in the Princeton area had to attend services in Trenton.
In 1949, The Jewish Center adopted a new charter. Shortly afterward, the congregation purchased a building on Olden Street, but when that site became too small to accommodate the growing number of families, the congregation purchased land at the current site.
The Jewish Center kicked off its year-long anniversary celebration in November with a program featuring sculptor Gary Rosenthal, who worked with members of the congregation to design and build a one-of-a-kind tzedaka box, assisted by more than 300 students from the religious school.
Upcoming events include a Women’s Shabbat program on Jan. 23 and an anniversary tribute on Feb. 27 at the Center’s Purim celebration.