The Mount Freedom Jewish Center enters its second century

The Mount Freedom Jewish Center enters its second century

Who knew there was a Borscht Belt in North Jersey?

And who knew that before the New York Thruway finally let drivers avoid the dreaded Route 17 on their way out of town, there was someplace else, some other Jewish vacation spot, closer to home (or at least closer to many of their homes) in New Jersey.

When I say drivers, please note, I mean Jewish drivers, and their Jewish families, who wanted a hotel or bungalow respite from the city’s simmering summer heat.

Many of them found that respite in Mount Freedom. (The area is part of Randolph Township, in Morris County.)

Its earliest Jewish residents made their way there because they wanted to be farmers. According to Linda Forgosh, in her book “Jews of Morris County,” Yetta and Max Levine were the first to get to Mount Freedom. In 1903, she reported, the pair left the Lower East Side for what was then deep country. The trip, which they made by horse and wagon, took two days. “News of their arrival circulated among the town’s farmers, who as the wagon came into view, stood silently by the roadside, watching the first Jewish settlers enter the town,” Ms. Forgosh wrote.

Left, Rabbi Menashe East stands in the sanctuary; the mechitza whose installation he mandated is to the right. (All photos courtesy The Mount Freedom Jewish Center)

Despite that unpromising beginning, life did not devolve into American Gothic. Instead, when the Levines and a few other Jewish would-be farmers learned that tilling the soil didn’t pay the bills, they opened their houses to guests. “A lot of them started out as kuchaleins,” rooms or bungalows where guests cooked for themselves in shared kitchens,” Howard Messer of Morris Township said. He’s a MFJC past president, the son of a past president, the grandson of one of the founders, and the father of fourth-generation shul members. “The Saltz Hotel” — probably the biggest of them — “started with two rooms, and then it expanded. And my grandmother also had a kuchaleine, and then people said to her, ‘You have eight kids, Mrs. Messer, and you cook for them. How different would it be if you cooked for us too?’”

So she did.

Mount Freedom’s hotel era began in the late 1920s and early ’30s and lasted until the late ’70s. “In the glory days, there were 13 hotels in Mount Freedom,” Mr. Messer said; they were supplemented by a network of 25 bungalow colonies, whose guests could enjoy (or complain about) the entertainment available to them at the hotels. “All those hotels were owned by Jews, and probably all of the guests were Jewish,” Mr. Messer said.

“There was a lot of entertainment; the performers went from hotel to hotel, and maybe did three or four shows a night,” he continued. “That wasn’t hard. They were all just maybe a couple of miles apart.” The hotels had no problems booking acts — “They had Phil Silvers, Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, Myron Cohen — all the big-name Jewish comics,” Mr. Messer said.

“The bungalow colonies were seasonal, from Memorial to Labor Day, and sometimes on weekends for the High Holidays, if the holidays were in the fall,” he continued. “Some of the hotels were open on weekends during the year.”

The building as it looks today.

Mr. Messer knows about this first-hand. “I saw most of them at my parents’ hotel. It was called Messer’s Farm; it had been my father’s boyhood home.” His grandfather, who had moved from the garment industry to become a farmer, originally owned 42 acres; by the time it became a hotel, Messer’s Farm was 20 acres. It became a small hotel, with around 52 rooms.

“My parents — Sol and Toby Pressman Messer — got rid of the cows in the ’50s; people wanted homogenized, pasteurized milk by then,” he added. “We lived in a private home, 660 feet from the hotel.” Messer’s Farm closed in 1962.

Even before the hotels opened, the Jewish families who lived at Mount Freedom year-round realized that they wanted a synagogue. In 1923, 13 men founded the Hebrew Congregation of Mount Freedom, the Orthodox synagogue that’s now known as the Mount Freedom Jewish Center and is celebrating its centennial (or more accurately the beginning of its next century).

One of the founders was his grandfather; another, Mr. Garfinkle, “had a general store and lived upstairs,” Mr. Messer said. Another founder and his wife had a little grocery store, called Little Broadway, that today we would call a convenience store. Each family had its back story.

It’s not using language regressively to say that the shul was founded by 13 men; only men were allowed to be members, Mr. Messer said.  “All 13 of them were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Some of them were farmers, some had worked in the garment trade.”

MFJC members held many public offices. Here, magistrate Mike Shulman, seated, is flanked by court clerk Sadie Shulman and police chief George Okun, all of MFJC.

Photos of those men and their families, and of some of the documents that marked their official lives — deeds, contracts, civil marriage licenses, ketubot — line the walls of the building.

The shul’s constitution was written in Yiddish as well as English, Mr. Messer said. It included the provision that its members could vote on any proposed new member, using a blackball system. “If someone got one black ball, he had to wait 30 days before being reconsidered for membership. If he got three, he had to wait for 90 days. If he got five, the chance of him becoming a member was slim to none.”

Until the Hebrew Congregation of Mount Freedom opened, local Jews had to shlep into Morristown or Dover to go to shul. Was that far? “By car, no,” Mr. Messer said. “By horse, yes.

“Most of the people my father went to school with had a horse and buggy. My father was born in 1917, and until high school he went to a two-room school, with an outhouse.

“Not everyone in school was Jewish, but since my father had six brothers and a sister, there certainly was at least one Jew in every grade.”

In 1962, congregants carried a new sefer Torah, under a chuppah, to its new home at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center.

The shul itself is a collage of all the buildings that have gone into it. The oldest building, which would be almost a century old now, is almost gone, but its shell is visible behind the stained-glass windows from a few renovations ago. Its white, stark structure roots the building’s later generations.

“In 1948, the synagogue added the back rooms, which include the minyan room,” Mr. Messer said. “And they did something really revolutionary. They added indoor plumbing and heat, so you didn’t have to go outside to get to the bathroom, and you didn’t have to stoke the coal stove anymore. In 1963-64, we added five classrooms, and what is now a social hall.

“I had the first bar mitzvah after the renovation,” Mr. Messer said.

The shul has two Holocaust memorials. One of them, displayed in the main entrance, was donated by six families in 1990; each, including his, gave $10,000, Mr. Messer said. It was driven by Ron Brandt; “his parents and in-laws were survivors,” he added. The other was donated to the shul by Edward Mosberg, the well-known Holocaust survivor who lived in Parsippany until his death in 2022. Mr. Mosberg was extremely active in Holocaust education; he recorded an interactive video for the USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony program. When his shul closed, he gave his memorial to Mount Freedom; it stands in the social hall today.

Unlike most suburban shuls, the Mount Freedom Jewish Center is neither one of many buildings on a street full of them, nor hidden at the end of a long drive, buffered from the street by landscaping and parking lots. Instead, it’s on a main road — the Sussex Turnpike — and it fronts that road. It would be hard to miss even without the large Israeli flag in front. It’s a proud place.

On a recent Sukkot, MFJC members enjoyed a Scotch tasting.

“Israel is a huge part of us,” Mr. Messer said. October 7 hit hard. “We put tables outside with empty chairs and pictures of the hostages on them out on the property next door,” which was extremely visible from the street. Since October 7, at least a dozen members who I can think of have gone to Israel.”

At the end of every service on Shabbat morning, the congregation sings “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, he added.

The shul has a Hebrew school, with about 45 students now. Some of its young members go to day schools, but most do not, Mr. Messer said.

“We have a very knowledgeable membership. We have a dozen people who can read the Torah, numerous members who can conduct services.

“We’ve had important people speak at the synagogue; senators Bill Bradley and Cory Booker, and every member of Congress who represented us, from Peter Frelinghuysen on. We’ve had Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Hebrew school students stand by stained glass windows; behind the windows the shell of the shul’s first building remains.

“Our members have connections, and they use them.”

As a century-old institution, the shul also has its mythology; a story its members love to tell actually is true.

“Yoshke, our shammes, lived in the shul for 30 some-odd years,” Mr. Messer said. To be clear, Yoshke was the shammes only nominally; he did very little work and was not an effective caretaker.

He was, Mr. Messer said, a horse thief in Chester; he’s not clear on what the story was, but he knows that’s the story. A Jewish horse thief. In Chester, New Jersey.

However it was that he found his way to Mount Freedom — “I couldn’t tell you how few found the shul,” Mr. Messer said — Yoshke, whose real name was Joseph Kossadoy, spoke almost exclusively Yiddish, and probably was born in Europe, “lived in the basement,” Mr. Messer said. “In the boiler room,” in a tiny space that even now, after many renovations, is as unwelcoming as the rest of the shul is open-armed and open-heartened. It’s a nasty little space.

This display, fronting the main road, remembers the hostages on the shloshim — the 30-day anniversary — of their abduction by Hamas on October 7.

“He had a little kitchen down there, with a hot plate,” Mr. Messer said. “He’d come up to services, and then he’d go back to his room.

“He was not a social person. The janitor, Tommy Philhower, used to drive him around. Yoshke and Tommy both were bachelors; Tommy would take Yoshke to the supermarket. They were very noticeable in town.

“He used to wave his cane at the kids, and they were afraid of him.”

Eventually, when he became too old and frail to live alone in the boiler room, “Rabbi Pruzansky found room for him in a Jewish nursing home in New York,” Mr. Messer said. (That was Rabbi Jerry Pruzansky. Mount Freedom’s Rabbi Pruzansky was the uncle of Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, who led Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, one of the country’s largest Orthodox synagogues, 1993 to 2020, when he retired and made aliyah.)

There have been things that have changed over the years, Mr. Messer said. “When I was growing up, they would stop the service and have a public auction for aliyahs during the High Holiday services.”

Excuse me, Mr. Messer, they did what?

Recently, shul members lit a bonfire for Lag B’Omer.

“Oh, yes,” Mr. Messer said. “It stopped probably in the 1990s, when Rabbi Bateman stopped it.” That was Rabbi David Bateman, who led the MFJC from 1987 to 1998. “He said that it was really disruptive. But we always had public auctions, which became silent auctions.

“I remember that there were two very active bidders for saying maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur.” That’s the haftarah, the Book of Jonah, that’s read in the afternoon that day.

Another change came in the 1970s, when women were allowed to vote. “Probably 60 years after Susan B. Anthony died, Mount Freedom gave women the right to vote. We’ve had five women presidents since then. And we no longer use the blackball system for members.

“Mount Freedom Jewish Center always has been Orthodox, Mr. Messer said. “At its peak, it probably had 225 member families. That probably was in the late ’70s or early ’80s. And then, when the Conservative movement became egalitarian, a lot of members moved to Morristown, to the Conservative shul there. And we’ve always had Orthodox rabbis.”

The shul’s practice of Orthodoxy is somewhat idiosyncratic. “We are unique,” Mr. Messer said. Most members do not live within walking distance; everyone walks, as Chabad rabbis also often say about their members, from the parking lot. There is a mechitzah — the divider that separates the women’s section from the men’s — put in as one of the non-negotiable demands of Rabbi Menashe East, who leads the shul now, before he accepted the position there almost 15 years ago, and there is also a section for mixed seating at the back. Women can have aliyot and read the Torah if there is a minyan of women; when that happens, men have a separate minyan. Women are not counted in the standard minyan; they can say kaddish but are not counted in the minyan as they say it.

In 2013, Mount Freedom Jewish Center celebrated its 90th anniversary; from left, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Donna Amdur East, and YCT graduate Rabbi Menashe East are at the gala.

Rabbi East, his wife, Donna Amdur East, and the older two of their four children moved to Mount Freedom in 2008.

It was perfect for them, Rabbi East said.

He’s from Teaneck, where he grew up as a member of Congregation Beth Aaron and went to the Torah Academy of Bergen Academy in Teaneck. “Teaneck is an amazingly unbelievable community,” he said. From there, he went to Yeshivat Sha’alvim in Israel, and then to Yeshiva University, where he majored in literature.

Much as he loved YU, Rabbi East said — “it has a great Torah learning environment” — he preferred the rabbinic education that Yeshiva Chovevei Torah in Riverdale offered; it’s still Orthodox but situates itself in what it calls “open Orthodoxy.”  He earned smicha there, and he also earned a master’s degree in social work from YU’s Wurzweiler School.

“Then we went to California for four years,” Rabbi East said. “I was the first rabbi of a synagogue in San Diego, and I taught in the San Diego Jewish Academy. But we wanted to do more synagogue-type work, and we both felt the pull of family. Donna’s family is from Israel originally, but they live in Highland Park.

At a recent Purim service, lionized Rabbi East and congregants read Megillat Estaire.

“So we looked in New Jersey. Mount Freedom had been without a rabbi for a year, and they were searching for one. I went out there for a Shabbat and I loved the place. It was so warm. The community was such a different experience from what I grew up with. I love Teaneck, but this is a small community, and I could feel it as soon as I walked in the door.

“I fell in love with it.

“The big question was about the mechitzah. It was a traditional Orthodox synagogue, but it didn’t have one, and that was crucial for me. We talked about it that Shabbat.

“It was a very contentious issue, but we were able to discuss it, and finally to figure it out.

“We were able to resolve it with the mixed section in the back, so we can accommodate everyone. It works. It is in line with the ethos of the community — it’s a place that welcomes everyone, and everyone feels like there is the halachic opportunity for everyone who wants to be engaged to be engaged.

The tent is ready for a pandemic High Holiday service.

“It is a community synagogue, and it needs to be able to accommodate families from a huge range of backgrounds. This is the way that we do it. Even though I am an Orthodox rabbi, and the community hadn’t had a mechitzah before, they were very surprised to find out that women can be participatory in ways that they hadn’t been before.

“The first Shabbat, we passed the Torah to the women’s section. Even that minor an action was a surprise. So it has been an evolving issue, looking for ways that women can be more engaged in services.”

The synagogue does not use the partnership minyan model, where women can lead the parts of the service that do not require a shaliach tzibur, the community’s messenger and voice, and men lead the parts that do require one. “But it is something that maybe we are open to considering,” he said.

“The community is extremely Zionist,” he continued. “Our kids serve in the Israeli army.” The connections are strong and lifelong.

Because parents do not have to be shul members to have their children go to Mount Freedom’s Hebrew school, the school “is an interesting snapshot of a very diverse population,” Rabbi East said. “People come from across the spectrum. They don’t have to be members because we want them to join at their own volition.”

Yoskhe the shammes lived in the shul’s boiler room for 30 years.

The friendships the children develop in Hebrew school can be tight, even if they are not in the same public school and therefore see each other just once a week. He told the story of two friends from different towns “who stayed friends after Hebrew school. The older brother of one of the girls died, tragically, and she and her friend held each other up. They are graduating from high school now, and they are going to college together.

“Neither are members of the synagogue, but they have this connection, and we were the conduit.”

As the shul community begins its second century, it looks forward to being the conduit to many more friendships, and many more memories.

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