During its 116 years, thousands of people have called Perth Amboy’s Congregation Beth Mordecai their spiritual home.
Over the years, however, what was once one of the largest Jewish communities in the state has declined, and its families have spread throughout the country and world.
However, from March 14 to 16, they can relive those glory days during the Conservative synagogue’s homecoming weekend. The reunion, coinciding with Purim, will include special services and a cruise on Raritan Bay.
“It’s an event that in many ways has been many years in the making,” said Rabbi Ari Saks. “There is such a sense of excitement here at Beth Mordecai. So many people remember the ark that would open when you pushed a button. They remember Cantor Gershon Ephros and Rabbi Max Davidson. You wonder how people could have such memories and then you walk into this place and you know why it’s so iconic.”
Beth Mordecai is the last remaining synagogue in a city that once had five shuls and a Jewish community that comprised 15 percent of the population.
As rabbi of a “small, but growing community,” Saks said he feels the responsibility to keep alive memories of “a city that was once thought to be a Camelot for Jews.”
The weekend will included a special Friday evening oneg Shabbat and a Saturday service highlighting the synagogue’s past and its vision for its future.
After kiddush lunch on Saturday, the afternoon will be filled with opportunities to shmooze with current and former members. Congregation president Norman Silverstein of Hillsborough described it as “an alumni homecoming weekend.”
Saturday’s activities will include a walking tour through the historic Raritan Bay district and its renovated marina and waterfront. That evening a “shmooze cruise” with dinner and a Purim celebration will sail around the bay.
After the reading of the megillat Esther the next morning, a lunch will be held featuring past lay and religious leaders, including former religious leaders Rabbis Barry Dov Schwartz and Melinda Zalma.
The idea for the reunion came six months ago when a group of New Yorkers whose childhoods were spent at Beth Mordecai were sitting around the Manhattan apartment of synagogue member Robert Klein with Saks and his wife, Rachael.
“The group cut across the generations; there were people there in their 40s to their 80s,” said Klein. “The rabbi just wowed us with his enthusiasm and commitment to breathing new life into this congregation.”
Klein has longstanding ties to the shul his grandparents, Joseph and Esther Klein, helped to found. In 1902 they became the first couple to marry in its new building. In 1937, Klein’s parents were married there by Davidson, who would also marry him and his wife, Elaine, in 1964.
His fondest memories revolve around Davidson and Ephros, whom he called “legendary leaders who had a lifelong influence on anyone who was fortunate enough to know them and study with them.”
Reunion chair Cheryl August was part of that New York group. She said other former members were located through old membership lists, newspaper advertisements, and word of mouth.
Her own parents joined 50 years ago and August, still a member, attended Sunday and Hebrew school at Beth Mordecai.
“I never left,” said August. “Even though I live and work in New York, it’s the place I always go back to for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. My mother, Dorothy August, is in Edison but still belongs. That sanctuary never ceases to amaze me when I walk in that door. When I think back about how much a part of my life it has been, I can’t imagine Beth Mordecai not being there. I just feel a very deep connection to that building.”