May 1, 2024
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Historic Congregation Mount Sinai in Jersey City Sees Signs of Revival

A close up of the aron and shulchan in the downstairs sanctuary.

A shul with a century-plus of service to observant Judaism in Jersey City is mounting a serious return to active Jewish life within its walls.

Congregation Mount Sinai was founded in 1906 and completed its shul building in 1910. It bills itself as the “oldest continuously operating synagogue in Jersey City.” According to its website (www.bestshulever.org), the shul was founded by Jewish merchants in the Central Avenue retail district and it flourished through much of the 20th century. Yet it began to see a decline by the end of the century, as Jewish families started to leave large urban areas and move to suburban neighborhoods.

The shul continued to host Shabbat services for the next few decades but took a hit when the last rabbi left five years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic further handicapped the shul, and things looked a bit dire. But thanks to a few stalwart supporters, the congregation never lost hope and has now turned a corner.

Shul President Arthur Goldberg (left) with Rabbi Netanel Reed.

One of those passionate participants was Josh Schwarzbaum, an emergency room doctor who served as unofficial gabbai and outreach director for a few years. Although he moved out of town in early spring of this year, he continues to actively support the shul.

Another captain of the kehillah is Arthur Goldberg, a retired investment banker who worked on Wall Street for 30 years and now writes for politically conservative journals. He was born and raised in Jersey City. When he married, he and his wife, Jane, decided to raise their family there, and their children attended the Yeshiva of Hudson County. They have four adult children and six grandchildren. Goldberg, president of the shul for the past five years, focuses on revitalizing the congregation.

Goldberg helped to enlist a Sanz Klausenberger yeshiva that rented the shul building and used it during weekdays from late 2021 through Pesach of this year. The steady presence of dozens of yeshiva students enabled the shul to host regular weekday morning minyanim.

A view of the main sanctuary.

In February of this year, the shul brought on board an exceptionally talented spiritual leader with a remarkable life story and a seemingly limitless reserve of energy, Rabbi Netanel Reed. The rabbi started his professional career as a legal and financial translator in Berlin in 1988. In 1993, he formed his own translation company, which still exists today.

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the start of an amazing era of kiruv in Germany. When Chabad Shaliach Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal arrived in Berlin in 1996, the Jewish community put him in contact with Rabbi Reed, who then provided Rabbi Teichtal close support as his gabbai over the next 12 years. Rabbi Teichtal relied on Rabbi Reed to care for the minyan. They started out praying in Rabbi Teichtal’s one-bedroom apartment, waking up neighbors to get a 10th man. By the time Rabbi Teichtal found the congregants a new home in 2005 in the Muenstersche Strasse Synagogue, then the largest privately funded synagogue in post-war Germany, Rabbi Reed had helped to put more than 100 people around the kiddush table every Shabbos.

A historic stained-glass window in the shul.

In the meantime, Rabbi Reed had begun learning with the international yeshiva, Pirchei Shoshanim. He received semicha in Shabbos in 2005 and another in Issur v’Heter in 2007. Apart from his duties as gabbai, He started giving shiurim in Hilchos Shabbos and assisting with kashrut before leaving for the United States in 2008.

Rabbi Reed and his family moved to Monsey, New York. He became active in his local shul as treasurer and helped to organize events there. He absorbed the wide-ranging teachings of his shul’s mara d’asra, Rabbi Yechiel Chaim Richard, a Boyaner chasid who had learned in Brisk, and learned the Daf with Rabbi Emanuel Fishman, a talmid of Rabbi Gifter at Telz.

After 15 years in Monsey, Rabbi Reed was ready to stretch his rabbinical legs. When Goldberg enlisted him to become the rav of Congregation Mount Sinai, Rabbi Reed got to work immediately. And though it’s only been a few months, his impact is already apparent.

A 96-year-old photo in the shul.

The shul attracted a crowd for a Purim night event and a modestly sized group for a Shabbaton in May. Rabbi Reed sends a weekly d’var Torah to over 150 subscribers on his email list, and is now teaching Hebrew to four congregants and teaching a chassan class to a young professional. He has a regular Shabbos afternoon Gemara shiur with a Ukrainian-American baal yeshiva. (Rabbi Reed describes him as an “off-the-charts genius who tears through the Gemara like a natural.”). He also reports that he is involved in a fair amount of pastoral work, such as visiting a 69-year-old woman in a rehabilitation facility.

Rabbi Reed conducts substantial outreach, and has found many unaffiliated Jews in the nearby area who are receptive to the open and inviting nature of the shul. Additionally, he has consulted with Rabbi Teichman at the OK kashrut organization and is working to grant a hashgacha to a local bakery and a vegan restaurant.

The shul still has much work to do. The building is in need of significant repairs and the congregation cannot yet guarantee a regular Shabbat morning minyan. Yet all those who do show up are rewarded with a full meal, Friday night or Shabbat morning, cooked by the rabbi, and word is getting around about this warm and caring shul.

Sue Birn, a longtime member, commented that the rabbi “goes out of his way to make people feel comfortable” and recounted that on one of her recent visits near her birthday, he got a seven-layer cake (her favorite) and sang “Happy Birthday.”

Reuven Goodman, a vice president of the shul, stated: “The synagogue is open to all members of Bnai Israel no matter their level of observance. I’m from Jamaica, where I grew up around a strong Jewish influence, and at Mount Sinai I have come to know the beautiful culture of Judaism that is based on love of God, love for the land of Israel, and love for your fellow man.”

Peter Gorvitz said: “So many Jewish people have come (to the shul) in recent years and become part of the community. We support each other and rely on each other. And any of them can find a place in the Jewish community of Jersey City, whatever choices they have made in their lives, and whatever aspect of their lives, secular or religiously motivated, they value.”

Aaron D., a new member who recently moved to Jersey City to become part of the shul, shared: “Congregation Mount Sinai is outstanding in many ways, from the wonderful rabbi and the people who come and participate, the delicious food … and the magnificent building. Every time I go, I feel a closeness to God. I don’t know how I stumbled upon Mount Sinai, but it was to my good fortune that I did.”

The downstairs sanctuary/social hall.

The congregational leaders invite visitors and prospective members to find a new religious home in the shul, located at 128 Sherman Avenue, within walking distance of Journal Square, Hoboken and Union City. They are even ready to help people in relocating to Jersey City.

Rabbi Reed and Goldberg also pointed out that the shul is interested in hosting another yeshiva or kollel, and invites serious inquiries.

For more information on Congregation Mount Sinai, please see their website at www.bestshulever.org


Harry Glazer is the Middlesex County editor for The Jewish Link and when he’s lucky, his editors send him to cover stories in other counties as well. He can be reached at [email protected]

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