Gone but not forgotten Members of Ohab Sholem temple leave a legacy
by Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
Dec 20, 2006 | 3333 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Shortly before his death at 71 on Oct. 22, Aaron Kessel saw another piece of his legacy built with the installation of a plaque at the Bayonne Jewish Community Center, a small piece of brass that was one more brick in the construction of a memory.

He and other members of the Ohab Sholem Congregation gathered in late September to celebrate the refurbishing of the lobby, which the congregation paid for through the sale of their temple.

Even though this moment was a joyous one, you could see a bit of sadness in each member's eyes as they remembered their own part in a 90-year legacy of faith that marked their temples history. The temple - known often as the Uptown Temple - closed its doors in late 2003 after having played a significant role in the history of Bayonne and the Jewish community.

Kessel, who served as treasurer of Congregation, said the lobby was one of a number of projects that benefited from the proceeds-part of an effort to make certain the money performed.

The temple closed its doors in 2003 due to the shrinking Jewish population in Bayonne. The property was sold and the members of the congregation voted to donate the proceeds to various good works.

One of these included the refurbishing of the Jewish Community Center lobby.

"We sold the synagogue and the adjoining building," Kessel said. "We are donating the money to various charities."

The sale, of course, was a sad moment for the remaining members of the congregation, who have since moved on to pray at other temples. But they are glad that both buildings have been sold to another Jewish group to establish a private Hasash, although the temple is still waiting for a new congregation.

"We wanted to do good things with the money," Kessel said. "So we voted to donate the money to charity."

Kessel said selling the temple and the associated school to another Jewish organization gave some satisfaction in that it would still be serving to help the Jewish community, even as a private school.

A great and noble history

Although the site of a chase scene from "Watching the Detectives," a new movie filmed in Bayonne in August, Temple Ohab Sholem on Avenue C near 49th Street has played a remarkable role in history.

The Orthodox Jewish temple - which was sold in 2003 due to declining membership-was part of a drive in the 1930s to help Jews living in Nazi Germany.

Hearing reports that Jews in Germany faced extermination, the synagogue members began to raise funds in an effort to help German Jews escape.

Later, the temple members later joined with the Knights of Columbus to create the Bayonne Jewish Community Council to fight fascism.

Although the congregation was founded in 1916, the temple was not constructed until 1925.

Michael Kessel, Aaron's son, said in a speech last year that families such as the Bergmens, Millers, Dinnersteins, Mendelwagers and others helped organize the temple because at the time no orthodox Jewish temple existed in uptown Bayonne.

"At the time, Bayonne had several synagogues, mostly in the vicinity of 20th through 24th St. with no Orthodox Synagogues in the uptown section," he said.

Board President Peter Melzer and Hava Benjamin Sarritano said many of the founders had met prior to 1916 for informal prayer gatherings in stores and homes.

"Some went downtown to the Synagogues there. Some walked across the railroad bridge to Elizabeth. When a synagogue opened in Jersey City, some went there," she said. "But there was a clear need for a synagogue uptown." Eventually known as the uptown synagogue, Ohab Sholem did not have a home of its own until the temple was constructed, said Leon Kaplan.

"The congregation moved to that site in the 1925," Kaplan said.

Aaron Kessel said the congregation built the extension in the 1930s to serve as a religious school.

Michael Kessel said the name Ohab Sholem - which means Love of Peace - is unique.

"It is of the Litvak pronunciation, Sholem as opposed to Sholom," he said. "The Litvak Jews were of Russian and Lithuanian stock. These men included the ancestors of Mr. Kaplan and other members of the Uptown Synagogue."

Michael Kessel said the temple changed as the city did.

"Bayonne always was, and still remains a town of immigrants and their families," he said. "It took in its fair share of immigrant Jews. Many of these Jews - especially after World W war II-settled in Bayonne and joined the Uptown Synagogue. Many, if not all of the Jews, were not Litvak Jews, but Galitzianers - Jews from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, survivors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, who while they still spoke the same language, spoke it differently."

He said the Silbersteins, the Ledermans, the Peleds, the Masons, the Kohns, and the Kessels were families from this stock.

The temple hired Rabbi Ruben Bendelstein in 1940, who served until his untimely death in 1984. Chiel Silberstein, a Holocaust survivor joined the congregation as cantor, or Chazzan, after World War II.

"This was a time of a vibrant shul, an extremely active woman's club, standing room only crowds for the high holidays, numerous bar mitzvahs, auf rufs (prenuptial blessings) and plenty of Sabbath services," Michael Kessel said. "I remember my father and grandfather speaking of sitting on folding chairs in the hallway for holidays and having to wait for membership applications to be processed."

The world changed

Bayonne itself changed, and so did the synagogue.

Kaplan said the Jewish population shrank in Bayonne. The young moved out, the elderly passed away - even though the Jewish community remains a tight knit group and many return to Bayonne on special occasions.

"The bar mitzvahs came fewer and further between," said Michael Kessel, "The weddings and simchas are more sparse and the families moved away and aged. Eventually the crowds on high holidays became a mere trickle, and the daily minyan almost non-existent. It became more and more difficult to maintain our synagogue."

Aaron Kessel said some members of Ohab Sholem wanted to continue, but many others did not.

"After many years of discussion and attempts to save the shul, it was decided by the membership to sell the property," Michael Kessel said. "They would take the money from the sale of the bricks and mortar of a building used to do service to people's souls to help save people's lives."

The proceeds and the shul's money would be distributed to charitable organizations inside and outside of Bayonne.

One of those charities was the dedication of an ambulance to Magen David Adom for use in Israel to service anyone of any faith or creed.

"We thought this was a way of doing good work," Aaron Kessel said. "We hoped it would get primary use delivering babies than dealing with casualties."

Hava Benjamin Sarritano, like Aaron, felt sad that the temple has not been used. They were encouraged by the fact that it remained in Jewish hands, unlike some of the other temples in the state.

"There is another orthodox synagogue seven blocks away from where the Uptown Synagogue stood," Michael Kessel said. "Times change, but the good works will remain in everyone's minds, heart and memories."

A personal recollection

Renee Cherow-O'Leary, a Ph.D. with Columbia University's Teacher's College, belonged to Ohab Sholom, as did her parents and grandparents.

"Membership there was one of the most important foundational experiences in my life," she said, noting that she had recently returned to Bayonne and tried to peek into the temple.

"One of the windows in the temple memorializes my grandparents," Cherow-O'Leary said, noting that this was a common practice to have windows honoring members. She said she would love to purchase the window if an opportunity comes about.

Her parents owned Cherow's Hardware at 50th and Broadway for over 60 years.

"My grandparents came from the Odessa area and eastern Europe," she said. "Russians were very big in shul."

She said many of those who founded the shul had come to America fleeing oppression. The Russian Czar was conscripting men and slaughtering Jewish people throughout Russia.

"Jews came here to escape, my grandparents were among them," she said. "Most of them knew persecution well before the Holocaust. My grandmother's grandmother was in Russia when the Cossack's came. My grandmother slept above a ledge above the fire place when the Cossack's came."

The Uptown Synagogue became a symbol of hope that translated to later generations like hers, and became a special place for her growing up.

"It was the very center of our community," she said.

This was especially true during the high holidays.

Although she has not returned to the synagogue in years, she remembers the Zodiac painted in turquoise blue on the ceiling.

Because this was an Orthodox temple, women sat in the seat above separated from the men seated below. They were divided by a curtain, called a "Machetza," that kept the women and men from seeing each other.

"We really didn't use it," she said. "It was always pulled aside."

People usually sat in the same seats each service.

"We sat in a corner at left hand side," she said. "I remember seeing my grandfather, father and all the men praying. That temple is a luminous place in my mind. For high holidays, we would dress up in our best clothes. Women wore furs, even if it was hot. There were shul stoles on days of fasting for Yon Kippur. Elderly women would bring smelling salts so they wouldn't faint."

To this day, she recalls those moments as special and grand. Though time has brought about a different sensibility as far as the liberation of women, she said she feels tenderness for that time.

She recalled that Rabbi Bendelstein and his wife, who led the congregation, were both vital leaders to the community. Although the men dominated the rituals, men and women were active, she said.

"A lot of the men were members of the Masonic Lodge," she said. "Everything was connected to the community somehow."

She called the temple "a living and breathing place," and life back then rich with tradition, ritual and a sense of belonging.

She remembered Cantor Silverstein.

"He had a golden voice and was one of the great cantors," she said. "I remember he was a short man, and for the high holidays he would wear white robes. When he sang, he would tear your heart out. Some of his prayers sounded like crying, and you knew that he was praying from out of the depths of his being. He lost his whole family in the Holocaust. I remember his wife would sit next to us where she could look at him all the time. She had lost her entire family to the Holocaust, too. They either met in the camps or directly after. They had no children. But she adored him and took care of him. When women up top started gossiping behind us, treating this as a social occasion, she would bang and tell them to be quiet while he was singing."

Cherow-O'Leary left that life in 1960 when she went off to college. While she returned regularly for several years, especially around the high holidays, that special time in her life had passed.

Before his death in October, Aaron Kessel recalled the sheer beauty of the synagogue-the stained glass windows and the European craftsmanship that went into its construction.

But he said what he missed the most were the people who attended the temple.

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