Temple Beth-El, designed by architect Percie Vivarttas of Weehawken, is of Byzantine style inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The red brick façade features an arched roofline that forms a pattern in contrasting brick on the walls below and over the front door entrance and side windows. The inset roof with a dome has a central stained glass oculus, permitting light to filter into the building. The sanctuary has walnut pews for a seating capacity of one thousand; the pews face a deep archway over the altar and Ark of the Covenant.
Temple Beth-El can date its beginnings to 1864/65 when an Orthodox Jewish congregation was started in Jersey City. Six years later it took the name Beth Israel Congregation with approximately twenty-five families and was located at 96 Montgomery Street. It was renamed Isaac Ephraim Congregation with approximately fifty families.
Some years later a group of congregants left B'nai Ephraim to found a branch of Reform Judaism in the city. The Reform members moved for a time to a former Christian church at Grove and Montgomery streets. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi J. Schweizer, sought to lead "a more liberal interpretation of Jewish faith" ("Will Build") making changes in temple practices. He held Friday services at 8:15 PM rather than sundown and Saturday services at 10:00 AM to accommodate a larger number of men and women and started a popular Sunday school. His founding of a Young People's Hebrew Association and Helping Hands Society gave the temple greater visibility in the community for its charitable programs and was increasingly popular with the new Jewish settlement in Jersey City.
An 1892 newspaper article comments on Rabbi Schweizer's lectures delivered in English rather than Hebrew: "He argues that English is the language with which his congregation is most familiar, and he intends to so conduct the service, that even the stranger within the gate may understand him. Finally Rabbi Schweizer also introduced an organ and a choir" ("Will Build A Temple." Evening Journal 26 January 1892). Rabbi Schweizer eventually led the reform members to leave B'nai Ephraim to the orthodox congregants. They set out to build a new synagogue at York Street between Varick and Monmouth streets, where it purchased two lots in 1891. The new Reform synagogue was named Temple Beth-El, meaning House of God, and looked to become the center of Reform Judaism in Jersey City.
In 1914 Temple Beth-El appointed Rabbi/Doctor Maurice Thorner of the Jewish Reform movement as their spiritual leader; he brought the temple into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations that represents the Reformed branch of Judaism. In an interview in 1996, Rabbi Kenneth Brickman explained that Temple Beth-El "was philosophically Reform, but was always spiritually more traditional than other Reform congregations" (Quoted in Hileman). Its Reform practices included confirmation and wearing of yarmulkes in temple.
The Reform temple remained in downtown Jersey City until September 1926 when it moved to its present location on Kennedy Boulevard. At the dedication ceremony for the new temple, several dignitaries were present; among them were Governor A. Harry Moore, Mayor Frank Hague, and Reform Jewish theologian Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. From its beginnings, women have served on its elected board of trustees, Blanche Dorfman becoming its first woman president in 1984.
In the 1950s, Temple Beth-El acquired the neighboring physician's office building from an estate for a religious school. It was originally called the "Temple House" but was renamed "The Rabbi Samuel A. Berman Temple House" on the occasion of the rabbi's fiftieth anniversary (1936 to 1986) at the temple.
The Temple Beth-El has an established tradition of community service in Jersey City. During World War I, it members assisted with a recreation fund for soldiers' camps and one for war victims. Its Sisterhood volunteered to work for the Red Cross during World War II. Congregation members supported the creation of the State of Israel in 1949 and sponsored bond drives for Israel. After the Jewish Community Center on Bergen Avenue closed, the temple took over that role for several Jewish groups, such as Hadassah, the Jewish War Veterans, and the United Jewish Association. During the 1960s, it housed a Head Start program at the shul. Interim mayor of Jersey City Charles K. Krieger (August-November 1971) served as president of the temple.
When a fire destroyed the Clair Memorial United Methodist Church on Communipaw Avenue on April 10, 2001, the board of trustees of Beth-El invited the African-American parishioners to hold their Easter service at the Temple. This led to a continuation of the practice as Clair Memorial held its Sunday services in the social hall until its own church building re-opened. In August 2001, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) presented the Temple and Clair Memorial its Harmony Award "celebrating amicable relationships between whites and blacks" (Rinn). In recognition for this good deed, about thirty employees of Goldman-Sachs, as part of its Community Team Works program, sought to reward the Temple. In May 2003, the volunteers helped with the construction of a much-needed ramp for handicap access to the sanctuary on the first floor.
Temple Beth-El reached its peak of membership in the 1950s and 1960s with 700 families and over 300 students in its Hebrew school. The congregation had 550 families in 1971, 380 families in 1984, and approximately 175 families in 2001. The decline of the Jewish population in Jersey City, due to removal to the suburbs or retirement communities, has had an impact on the temple. However, the arrival of newcomers to the city during the recent real estate boom on the Jersey City waterfront has said to be revitalizing the congregation.
The other Jewish congregations in Jersey City are: Agudath Shalom Congregation (Orthodox) at 2456 Kennedy Boulevard; Congregation B'nai Jacob (Conservative) at 176 West Side Avenue; and Mount Sinai Congregation (Orthodox) at 128 Sherman Avenue.
"Burned-out Church Gets a Refuge." Jersey Journal 14 April 2001.
Hileman, Ken. "Congregants Raise Glasses to Toast Temple Beth-El."
"One Good Deed Leads to Another." Jewish Standard 12 April 1996.
Rinn, Miriam. "CORE Honors Jersey City's Temple Beth-El." Jewish Standard 30 May 2003.
"Jersey City's First Synagogue." New York Times 3 June 1889.
Jewish Standard 24 August 2001.
Temple Beth-El: http://www.betheljc.org/
"Temple Beth-El Installs First Woman President." Jewish Standard 3 February 1984.
"Temple Beth-El to Open Celebration of Centenary." Jersey Journal 13 January 1971.
"Will Build A Temple." Evening Journal 26 January 1892.