2016-11-23 / Voice at the Shore

New book debuts on the birth of AC’s Jewish community

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Author Jerry Gordon shows off his new book. Author Jerry Gordon shows off his new book. When Jerry Gordon was growing up in Atlantic City during the 1940s and ‘50s, the area had over a dozen different synagogues. His life revolved around the “ Y ” — t h e Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which would later be known as the JCC, and Atlantic City High School had numerous Jewish fraternities and sororities.

Gordon, who moved to North Jersey, wanted to show this world to his children, but he couldn’t—because it was gone. That is why the former publisher and self-proclaimed history buff decided to write a history of Atlantic City’s Jewish Community. The new book is called “From its Beginnings: The Jewish Community of the

Atlantic City

Area.”

“I tried to capture the whole cultural life to the Jewish community. That was my intent,” said Gordon.

In addition to profiling the plethora of synagogues that have graced our community, the book also gives the history of the JCC, Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Federation and other important Jewish organizations, along with unique aspects of Jewish life in Atlantic City during the 20th century.

“I’m sure I’ll hear from people about what I’ve left out!” he laughed.

As Gordon noted in the book’s dedication, Jewish settlers ventured into Atlantic County at the turn of the 20th century “with nothing but a hope for a future and a commitment to their heritage.” Without the efforts of these early Jewish settlers, he added, the Jewish Community in and around Atlantic City “would not exist.” Those settlers confronted and overcame anti-Semitism, building their own hotels when the existing ones would not allow Jews, and dared to move to areas that previously would not allow Jews. They also created synagogues and other organizations to accommodate the needs and customs of Jews of differing backgrounds and means.

The book, which starts in the 1890s, profiles over a dozen local synagogues, starting with the two oldest: Beth Israel and Rodef Sholom. Beth Israel, founded by German Jews in 1890, was “one of the first Reform congregations in the country,” according to Gordon. To find a rabbi, they ran an ad saying “Wanted, minister, teacher and unmarried, for a salary of $600 per year.” The book also traces Beth Israel’s many moves, describing how the congregation, like many others, followed the Jewish population from Atlantic City to the Downbeach area in the mid- 1900s, before ultimately moving to Northfield in 1986.

Orthodox Eastern European Jews formed Rodef Sholom, the only synagogue now remaining in Atlantic City, in 1897. The congregation, which had its own mikveh (one of four in the city at the time) brought together several existing pockets of Orthodox Jews, and continued to grow as more arrived in the area. The synagogue also started a new trend in the Atlantic City area by opening its own Hebrew school in 1908; according to Gordon, “the idea of connecting a Hebrew school to a synagogue” was a revolutionary idea at the time.

After introducing these two synagogues, the book goes on to talk about other local synagogues that came, went, moved and merged over the years, many of which were offshoots of these two older synagogues.

Gordon’s book also chronicles the rise of Conservative Judaism in Atlantic City in the 1920s, in response to the desires of second generation Jews.

“This second generation of Jews wanted to conduct their religious services like the rest of Americans,” which meant men and women sat together and that the Rabbi’s role, in addition to leading the service, was to help congregants blend their American and Jewish identities, explained Gordon.

The two earliest Conservative congregations were Beth Kehillah in Atlantic City, which Gordon himself belonged to (notably, a graphic of that synagogue’s stained glass window graces the book’s front cover) and Beth Judah in Ventnor, the first shul started in the Downbeach area. Opening a synagogue in Ventnor in the 1920s was a bold move because Jews were so new to the area, wrote Gordon.

“The local newspapers welcomed the news of the Jews of Ventnor forming a ‘church,’” he said.

In addition to profiling the many synagogues that have come, gone and stayed in the Atlantic City area, the book also talks about anti-Semitism in the resort town in a section on Atlantic City’s hotels. At the turn of the 20th Century, said Gordon, the summer Jewish population was so high that business owners feared non- Jews might avoid the resort town.

“In an effort to counter this, many hotels established a ‘Christian Only Policy’. Some even posted signs reading ‘Gentiles Only’,” he wrote.

Jewish settlers responded by developing a flourishing hotel business by and for Jews. “By 1928, there were more than 20 kosher hotels, all within close proximity of one another. A kosher hotel existed to suit almost any Jewish impulse, whether one desired kosher home cooking, seder services, two separate kitchens, or even Hungarian Cuisine,” noted Gordon.

The latter sections of the book detail other aspects of Jewish life. There are profiles of communal organizations like the JCC, the Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service and Seashore Gardens Living Center, as well as a smattering of sections on miscellaneous factors affecting Jewish life at the time, such as Jewish grocery stores and delis, and the influx of Holocaust survivors following World War II.

Intentionally omitted from the book was a description of Atlantic City’s major Jewishowned businesses. Leo Schoffer, a local businessman and former Federation president, covers this topic in his 2009 book “A Dream, A Journey, A Community: A Nostalgic Look at Jewish Businesses in and Around Atlantic County.”

Gordon was in the early stages of researching his own book when that book came out. “Leo’s book was terrific. I wanted to capture the other pieces not included in his book. Together they really present the whole picture.”

Gordon described his own book as “a labor of love.” After {What did Gordon’s children, who inspired the book in the first place, think of the book? They loved it, he said. “My daughter told me: ‘It opens up a page to your life.’ But it’s not just my life, it’s the whole community’s life!”

The 69-page, self-published book costs $10 and can be purchased by contacting Gordon at (609) 788-8431 or jbgordon0560@comcast.net. Anyone interested in talking more about Atlantic City history or looking for a speaker on the subject is also welcome to contact him, he said. “This is how I plan to spend my retirement! I’m looking forward to talking to people about Atlantic City history.” s

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