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To Be Jewish in Princeton: A Look Back

By Anne Levin

Photographs Courtesy of The Historical Society of Princeton

Back in the 1930s, my grandparents considered moving from Philadelphia to Princeton and opening up a medical office for my grandfather, an obstetrician. But as Jews, they worried about discrimination. So they stayed put.

Some eight decades later, such trepidations would seem unfounded. Princeton’s Jewish community coexists collegially among other religions and cultural groups. The town prides itself on diversity. Being Jewish in Princeton is, you might say, no big deal.

It wasn’t always so. Jews were a small minority in Princeton until recent decades, and incidents of anti-Semitism are documented. But among Jews growing up here in the last half of the 20th century, when Princeton was a small college town, some describe a mostly peaceful existence.

“I never experienced prejudice here. Absolutely not,” says Boston city planner Sarah Peskin, who is 67 and grew up in town. “I think I encountered anti-Semitism maybe once,” says landscape architect Alan Goodheart, who still lives in Princeton. Goodheart and his twin brother were the first to celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs at The Jewish Center of Princeton in 1954.

Jews have been in Princeton since Colonial days. According to a book published after a 1999 collaborative exhibit by The Historical Society of Princeton and The Jewish Center to mark the latter’s 50th anniversary, the first Jewish person to be documented in Princeton was businessman “Judah Mears of Princeton-Town.” Mears is mentioned in an 1737 account book entry, according to Old Traditions, New Beginnings: Two Hundred Fifty Years of Princeton Jewish History, the companion book to the exhibit by curator Alice M. Greenwald.

By the early 19th century, Jewish scholars were serving as Hebrew tutors for Seminary students. But many were becoming converts to Christianity. The exhibit book mentions Sara Marks, a Jewish woman from New Orleans, who married prominent Princetonian John Potter Stockton in 1845. The marriage caused a scandal. But Sara converted to the Episcopal Church soon after the wedding. Her name appears in the baptismal records of Princeton’s Trinity Church just after the birth of her first child.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European Jews emigrating to America began filtering into Princeton. Despite blatant anti-Semitism — Greenwald’s book quotes editorials from a local publication protesting America becoming “the dumping ground for the degraded classes of the continent of Europe” — they began to settle in town, making a living as peddlers and shopkeepers. Greenwald’s book notes about 25 Jewish families by 1930, many living above the shops they ran on Nassau and Witherspoon Streets.

It was a small, close-knit community. There was Vogel Brothers butcher shop, Louis Kaplan’s clothing store, Wolman and Caplan’s Reliable Furniture, Braveman’s watch repair shop, Dolsky’s Stationery Store, Alpha Dairy, Urken’s Hardware, Viedt’s Tea Room and Chocolate Shoppe, and Princeton Clothing Company, among others.

Albert Einstein  accepting U.S. citizenship certificate from judge Phillip Forman. Einstein became an American citizen in 1940, not long after settling into his career at the Institute for Advanced Study. Wikimedia Commons.

“The store became the true focus of my childhood, the vantage point from which I could compare and contrast the Yiddish-speaking apartment above with the larger, English-speaking world outside, a world personified by the vigorous, self-assured students who inhabited the campus buildings and came into the store every day,” recalls May Dolsky Braidman in the exhibit book. Dolsky’s Stationery Store, run by her parents, was frequently visited by Albert Einstein, a prominent member of Princeton’s Jewish community. Einstein was often described as a “religious non-believer.” Along with other emigres who came to Princeton to teach at the Institute for Advanced Study, he was closely involved with the Princeton United Jewish Appeal.

Princeton’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Zion, was established in the late 1920s. Donald Rosenthal, who grew up in an apartment on Witherspoon Street above the family clothing store, recalled in the exhibit book, “Our Jewish activities centered around the B’nai Zion ‘Synagogue’ – a large, first floor rented room in the Branch Building on Spring Street. It had a narrow entrance just a few steps up from the street and was conveniently located just a short distance from our family’s store and apartment…the congregation also used a large auditorium on the second floor of the Branch Building with a wide entrance on Witherspoon Street.”

By the late 1940s, the Jewish community had outgrown the Spring Street location. To combine religious observance with social and educational activities, The Jewish Center was founded. Services were held in a one-room building on Olden Street, the former location of the First Church of Christ Scientist. But within a few years, the growing congregation was searching for a larger facility.

The current site, at 435 Nassau Street, was purchased in 1956. Not everyone was enamored of the new location. “I really liked that old building on Olden Street,” said Goodheart. “I was even the shamus (caretaker) for a while. I went to Friday night services there with my father. The new building…it wasn’t beautiful. And it had no excuse for not being beautiful, because it was brand new.”

“I remember there was a lot of discussion about where it would move,” recalled Peskin. “My father was on the committee. They wanted to be on Nassau Street to be visible, but he thought another site would be better, where All Saints’ Church is now. Shortly after they built on Nassau Street, they discovered there was not enough parking, which he had predicted.”


Spring Street entrance to B’nai Zion Synagogue, late 1930s. Historical Society of Princeton.

A new sanctuary and significant expansions have accommodated the growth of the congregation, which went from 80 families in 1959 to more than 600 families in 2000. But numbers have ebbed in recent years.

“It hasn’t grown, but it’s changed,” said Rabbi Adam Feldman, who has been with The Jewish Center for 13 years. “It’s more vibrant now. We have more programs, and classes for all ages. Worship services are well attended. We do have fewer members. But that’s just society today. That’s true in all denominations.”

A number of Princeton’s Jewish residents are involved in Chabad of Princeton, an alternative to traditional affiliation described on as “a major movement within mainstream Jewish tradition with its roots in the Chassidic movement of the 18th century.” Rabbi Dovid Dubov, whose residence on Princeton-Kingston Road has been home to the local Chabad since 1991, said the goal is “to reach out to all Jews, even those unaffiliated. Our main goal is to build Jewish identity. We say there is no difference between one Jew and another. We don’t believe in Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform (classifications). We accept everyone.” (The Jewish Center of Princeton calls itself Conservative-Egalitarian.)

It is Chabad that holds the popular lighting of the Hanukkah menorah in Palmer Square each year. “I am what is called an outreach,” Rabbi Dubov continued. “We visit hospitals, prisons, and reach out to all different levels of Jewish people. Many unaffiliated Jews, for whatever reason, don’t like to come to synagogue. We reach out to them many times during the year. We have no such thing as membership, but there are hundreds and hundreds of people we are involved with.”

Evelyn Dolsky in front of the store, ca. 1930s. Historical Society of Princeton.

A new center for Chabad of Princeton is planned for a site on Route 206 near Griggs Farm. Rabbi Dubov said an opening is targeted for beginning of 2018. The organization is actively involved with students at Princeton University.

While The Jewish Center has figured prominently in their lives, some in Princeton recall a relaxed attitude to their faith. “I went to the Jewish Center as a kid. I wasn’t particularly attuned to it, though,” said science writer and editor Michael Lemonick. “My parents were very secular. I didn’t have a strong Jewish identity, but I did have a Bar Mitzvah.”

“We had a back-and-forth, mixed relationship with The Jewish Center,” said Peskin. “ My parents felt it was important to be connected, but neither had had particularly religious educations, so we didn’t go to services. I went to the Sunday School and was in a confirmation class with Everett Gendler, who was the rabbi in the sixties. But I chose not to be confirmed for a variety of reasons.”

Mr. Watson and David Kahn at the Alpha Dairy on Witherspoon Street, c. 1935. Historical Society of Princeton.

Gendler, who served at The Jewish Center from 1962 to 1967, was known for his involvement in progressive causes. “There was a Jewish youth group he organized that was very welcoming and a really interesting place to get together for kids from a variety of faiths,” Peskin said. “He marched in Selma and was a very inspiring leader. People enjoyed talking with him. But then it was made limited to members of the temple, and I dropped out.”

The Jewish Center today makes a point to be inclusive. “We have a lot of intermarried families here. They are all welcome to participate to the extent they want to,” said Rabbi Feldman. “We embrace and welcome all Jewish families.”

Greenwald, curator of the 1999 exhibition on Princeton’s Jewish community, summed it up in her book: “For those with initiative and vision, Princeton has provided a place of opportunity for Jews who, increasingly since the 1920s — and particularly in the second half of the twentieth century — have contributed to the economic, cultural, professional, and intellectual life, as well as the governance, of this community. The reciprocity between Princeton and its Jewish citizens has come to embrace mutual expressions of support for tolerance, diversity, and spiritual pursuits.”

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi visit Albert Einstein at the Albert Einstein house in Princeton, in 1949. Wikimedia Commons.

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