Temple B’Nai Israel, oldest synagogue In Burlington County closes its doors
For Stephen Sand, becoming a bar mitzvah finally meant being counted in the minyan at Temple B’Nai Israel in Burlington City. But it also meant, unfortunately, waking up extremely early on Saturday mornings in his teenage years.
In its heyday, one of South Jersey’s oldest synagogues held Shabbat services at 7:30 a.m. sharp, allowing the many High Street merchants time to set up for business in the bustling downtown.
“After bar mitzvah, sleeping late on Saturday morning was a thing of the past,” Sand recalled. “Inevitably, my brothers and I would get that early morning call (before 7:30 a.m.)—‘boys, we need you. We’ll pick you up in 10 minutes.’”
Such memories seem more poignant in recent days. After a valiant struggle to repair its historic home, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy and subsequent flooding, TBI leadership regretfully announced that the shul is disbanding. With insurance settlement payments falling well short of what would be needed to fix the 200-yearold structure, the process of taking care of yahrzeit plagues, membership and other assets will likely begin this fall. Rabbi Joseph Domosh, who has held the pulpit for seven years, has been hired by Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in Cherry Hill that is welcoming of TBI members.
“It was a loving congregation where everyone looked out for everyone else,” said Domosh, noting he found similarities at Ner Tamid, where he started earlier this month. “As part of the negotiations with Ner Tamid was allowing TBI congregants to attend services, especially High Holiday services.
TBI’s history traces back to 1907, when 11 families held services in a private home on High Street, said Sand. By 1915, it was incorporated as an Orthodox synagogue, and, in the following year, purchased its home for nearly 100 years at 212 High Street.
And what a home. The property can be traced to the original 1696 deeding of the parcel of land by King George to Samuel Jennings, first deputy governor of West Jersey. Among a row of structures, a print shop was erected next to where the synagogue now stands. It was there that Benjamin Franklin printed New Jersey’s first paper Colonial currency. Later, Isaac Collins printed his “New Jersey Gazette” during the Revolutionary War.
The actual structure was built in 1801. Famous residents over the years included Garret Wall, U.S. Senator and U.S. Attorney General, and Andrew McNeal, owner of McNeal Pipe and Foundry. The synagogue was a regular stop on Burlington City’s annual historic house tour.
With the influx of Jewish merchants, the Jewish community grew and thrived in the post-World War II years and the synagogue changed to Conservative affiliation.
Up through the 1970s, Sand said, there were always activities going on: holiday and private parties, plays, fashion shows, b’nai mitzvah, sisterhood and men’s club, as well as the weekly poker game where the winnings went to the synagogue.
The Hebrew school regularly enrolled over 60 children, and kids played baseball in the huge backyard.
As for the early and short Saturday services, nothing was lost, said Sand. “Not only did those ‘old-timers” leading the service daven like champs, the service was about 99% in Hebrew, with no sermon,” he said.
In reality, well before catastrophic weather damaged the building, the congregation was struggling. As congregant children grew up, few stayed in their hometown. Even Sand raised his family in Philadelphia, but still crossed the river to remain a TBI congregant. Rabbi Domosh’s arrival, after years when the synagogue was under the guidance of interim spiritual leaders, was the first time in years that membership grew.
“We made it work,” he said. “There was a very core group of people in it for each other. It was a great gig.”
“Even before the storm and damage, people were wondering how long could we exist,” said Sand, who recently moved with his wife Jean to Maryland. “We barely got a minyan together.”
Hurricane Sandy added to the troubles. The damage to the building was extensive, most of the prayerbooks were destroyed but the Torahs were saved, said Sand. And soon, former congregants will start looking into finding good homes for them and other Jewish assets.
“There’s certainly a lot of history in the building,” said Sand, who noted that at the shul’s 100th anniversary, several years back, people came from across the country to remember the good times. .