CAMDEN, city and county in New Jersey. The earliest-known Jewish settlers in the city of Camden, primarily small merchants, began to arrive about 1890. In 1894 they formed the
Orthodox Sons of Israel Congregation and in 1907 they established a YMHA, which closed 25 years later due to the Depression and relocation of younger families to the residential area of Parkside. In 1924 a Conservative congregation, Beth El, was formed in Parkside.
The Conservatives established the Hebrew School and the Jewish Welfare Society. The Orthodox, under the leadership of Rabbi Naftoli H. Riff, a scholar of renown and a dominant figure in the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, sponsored the Ladies' Aid Society, the Talmud Torah, and the Federation of Jewish Charities. In 1937 the two groups cooperated in forming a new Jewish Federation to offer a coordinated approach in meeting the challenges of a growing Jewish community, including the financing of all religious schools in Camden County.
By 1945 the Jewish population of Camden County had reached 7,500, including many engineers who were attracted to such expanding Camden industries as the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Parkside became the main Jewish residential area, and Congregation Sons of Israel relocated there. By the early 1950s, however, Jews started to move to the suburbs. Reform Temple Emanuel was created in suburban Camden and a Jewish community center was erected there in the mid-1950s.
The 1960s marked a continual growth of the Jewish community in the suburbs and a corresponding decline in the city of Camden. In 1965 there were 14,965 Jews in Camden County and the nearby parts of Burlington County. By 1969 this figure had increased to 18,230, of which only an estimated 1,400 were still living in urban Camden. A later population study estimated that by 1991 the Jewish population of the region had grown to approximately 50,000, with only a handful of Jews left within Camden city proper.
In 1973 the Jewish Federation of Camden renamed itself the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey to reflect the growing suburbanization of the Jews and their spread into the suburban areas of Camden and neighboring Burlington and Gloucester counties.
The 1990s marked a significant growth in community institutions, which reflected the increase and geographic spread of the Jewish population. The suburban towns of Cherry Hill and Voorhees in Camden County became the community's new center. The Jewish population also grew significantly in Burlington County, with the focus moving from Willingboro and Burlington to new communities, primarily Mount Laurel, Medford, Moorestown, and Marlton. Growth in Gloucester County, however, remained slow.
The synagogues and community institutions that were built during the first move out of Camden to suburbia in the 1960s and 1970s moved further east reflecting the shift in population. The opening of the new campus in 1997 for the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey and its affiliated agencies, including the Katz Jewish Community Center on the east side of Cherry Hill, marked the demographic change.
Religious life centers around large congregations: three Reform – Temple Emanual and Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill and Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel; two Conservative – Temple Beth Shalom and Congregation Beth El, both in Cherry Hill; and one Orthodox, Sons of Israel, although smaller congregations have also grown in strength. The Jewish Community Center maintains a strong cultural program. The tradition of cooperation between the synagogues, the agencies of the Jewish Federation, and the Tri-County Board of Rabbis, whose membership includes all the congregational rabbis in the community, continues.
The community maintains two day schools, the Harry B. Kelman Academy, part of the Solomon Schechter system, and the Politz Day School, affiliated with the Orthodox Congregation Sons of Israel. The Jewish Community Center sponsors the largest Jewish day camp in the United States in Medford.
Jews have taken their place in the economic, social, and political life of Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester counties. Jewish community leaders often take leadership positions in new Jewish activities, such as the ground-breaking agreement between the Jewish community of Southern New Jersey and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden with a joint agreement of understanding that established the Catholic Jewish Commission of Southern New Jersey to coordinate activities beneficial to both communities in 2001. The Jewish Community Voice, a bi-weekly newspaper chronicles the life of the Jewish community of Southern New Jersey.