MONMOUTH COUNTY, county in central New Jersey, lying along the Atlantic Ocean about 40 miles southwest of New York City. About 500 square miles in area, it is divided into 52 municipalities of various sizes. Monmouth's approximately 72,500 Jewish residents in 2005 (11.5% of the county's total population) make it one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the Metropolitan region.
The county's Jewish history is long and varied. Evidence shows Sephardi peddlers from New York traveling through the county in the early 1700s. The first resident, Isaac Emanuel, a Freehold merchant, appears in a series of court cases in the early 1720s. By the 1750s Jonas Solomon and Levy Hart, both married to local Protestant sisters, were well known as Jewish merchants and tavern keepers. Solomon lived in Freehold and Hart in a small settlement further east that was to be labeled "Jewstown" by his colonial neighbors and by the British during the ensuing Revolutionary War. The original Freehold home and tavern owned by Jonas and Hannah Solomon was burned by the British during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. The barn, circa 1800, owned by their son, Levi Solomon, who farmed nearby, is still in existence and was designated as the site for the newly established Monmouth County Jewish History Museum in 2005.
No permanent Jewish communities in the county developed, however, until the arrival of sizable numbers of German Jews just prior to and after the Civil War. Monmouth's 33-mile coastline became the destination of wealthy vacationers escaping the summer heat of New York City. By 1861 Aaron Cristaler had build and was operating the kosher Atlantic Hotel in Long Branch, which accommodated 500 persons. Denied acceptance at Christian resorts in New York and Rhode Island, more and more wealthy German Jews came to what was called the "Jewish Newport" at the Jersey Shore. Families with illustrious names such as Seligman, Guggenheim, Schiff, Loeb, Warburg, Sachs, Baruch, Mandel, Rothschild, Lewisohn, Lehman, Wimpfjeimer, and Oppenheim built magnificent summer mansions from Rumson to Long Branch. By the late 1880s the need for a permanent synagogue resulted in the establishment of Temple Beth Miriam in Long Branch. Many of the supporters of this synagogue of Reform Judaism were also instrumental in 1887 in establishing the nearby hospital that is now known as Monmouth Medical Center.
In addition to their more wealthy compatriots, Monmouth attracted many German Jews who sought commercial opportunity in small trades and services. Such a close-knit community of Jews was already present in the northern Monmouth Bayshore town of Keyport in the 1860s. In 1880 they organized themselves as the United Hebrew Congregation and within a decade established a synagogue. By the last decades of the 19th century, Red Bank was also emerging as a commercial center, its growth synonymous with the career of Sigmund Eisner. Starting off with the family sewing machine Eisner developed a prosperous business producing military uniforms for the Spanish-American War. By World War I he had factories in Red Bank, Freehold, and Keansburg. One of Eisner's neighbors was summer resident Judge Abram I. Elkus, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey in 1916. His daughter Katherine Elkus White became mayor of Red Bank in 1950 and U.S. ambassador to Denmark in 1964.
Several other German Jewish entrepreneurs stand out: John Steinbach, proprietor of large department stores in Long Branch and Asbury Park; Frank Marx of Shrewsbury, cattle dealer and meat supplier; Joseph Goldstein, dry goods department store owner; Clarence Steiner and his sleepware factories in Long Branch and Freehold, Manasquan and Keyport; Walter Rosenberg founder of the Walter Reade Theater chain; Berthold Sussman and Siegfried Hirschfield and their hotels. Political acceptance followed; William Levy served as mayor of Deal in 1916, Clarence Housman was elected mayor of Long Branch in 1920, and Aaron J. Bach, mayor of Deal in 1922.
A wave of Eastern European immigration also hit Monmouth at the turn of the 19th century. Most of these poor Yiddish-speaking newcomers settled in the more established communities along the shore and to the south, working in factories and the retail trades. Finding that the existing summer German Jewish Temple Beth Miriam did not meet their year-round needs, the Orthodox residents of Long Branch formed their own synagogue, Congregation Brothers of Israel, in 1898. A larger building was completed in 1920. A YMHA and YHWA was organized, followed by the Ladies Independent Hebrew Sick Benefit Association, the Gemilath Chesed, the Hebrew Ladies Hospital Auxiliary, and the Workmen's Circle. Kosher hotels and boarding houses catering to wealthy and moderate income East European Jews proliferated.
In 1904 the Orthodox Jewish community in Asbury Park incorporated as the Sons of Israel and were in their own building the following year replete with Hebrew school and mikveh. The new Conservative Temple Beth El was dedicated in 1927. Soon Asbury Park could boast its own community center providing a meeting place for the YMHA, Jewish War Veterans, and other organizations. Similar activity occurred around the same period in Red Bank, Keyport, Bradley Beach, Belmar, and Manasquan. Belmar became a summer gathering place of the New York intelligentsia attracting such luminaries as the world renowned Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and Morris Hillquit, the Social-Labor Party leader and author. Ira Gershwin, the famed lyricist, courted and married one of the daughters of the Strunsky family, owners of the local hotel.
A smaller number of East European immigrants moved westward into the more rural areas surrounding Freehold, Englishtown, Perrineville, and Farmingdale.
The Jewish Agricultural Society, which provided loans, training and assistance to Jewish farmers, most often in Yiddish, described them as growers of vegetables, potatoes, and general farm crops with a cow or two and some chickens. A few, like Jacob Zlotkin, were horse and cattle dealers. In 1910 Jacob Grudin led a group of Millstone Township Jewish farm families in setting up a congregation named the First Hebrew Farmers Association of Perrineville. In 1913 the Perrineville Co-operative Credit Union was organized, one of the first farm credit unions in New Jersey. Local Jewish farmers were also largely responsible for the formation of the Central Jersey Farmers Cooperative Association in 1930. Maurice Wolf of Perrineville played an important role in the national Jewish farmers movement, serving on the board of the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America.
The largest concentration of Jewish farm life in the county, however, was to develop in the Farmingdale-Howell area. Starting out in 1919 Benjamin Peskin found he had to take in summer boarders to supplement his meager potato and dairy farming earnings. By 1928 he and 12 other families joined to build a Jewish Community Center and in a few years a Yiddish school affiliated with the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute was in operation. Other organizations took root; a Ladies Auxiliary, a Jewish reading circle, a Jewish farmers' chorus, two farmers' cooperative associations, a unit of the International Workers Organization, the Zionist Pioneer Women, and a chapter of the Rural Youth of America. At the advice of the Jewish Agricultural Society the farmers started raising poultry. By the late 1920s the fields around Farmingdale and Freehold were dotted with chicken coops as New Jersey was on its way to becoming the egg basket of the East. Jewish farmers soon accounted for about 75% of the state's egg production and by 1935 Monmouth County contained more Jewish farmers than any other county in the state.
It was at this time that, under the direction of the idealistic social planner and organizer Benjamin Brown, one of America's unique experiments in cooperative farming and industry was instituted in Jersey Homesteads (renamed Roosevelt after the president's death) in rural Millstone Township. Brown secured a $500,000 federal government subsistence loan for the creation of a colony of 200 Jewish needle workers from New York who were to become self-sufficient through seasonal farming combined with seasonal employment in a cooperative garment factory. Individual homestead plots were to be supplemented by a community truck garden, a dairy and poultry plant, and cooperative store. The factory was opened in 1936 and from the start was a failure. Conflict between Brown and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and other political and economic factors led to a federal government takeover of the cooperative in 1940. After World War II the houses were sold to individuals. Although Jersey Homesteads failed as a cooperative enterprise in many ways it succeeded as a community. Surrounded by a hostile rural Christian township the Jewish residents formed their own elementary school which became the cultural and social center of the town. Attracted by the intellectual and cultural atmosphere of the town, the famous artist Ben Shahn and many other painters and sculptors moved in and soon Roosevelt was hailed as an artists' colony as well.
By the late 1950s though, Monmouth's Jewish farm communities were in decline owing to a combination of economic, political, and social reasons. Another wave of immigration was to change the county's landscape as large numbers of families from New York City and northern New Jersey moved to the suburbs.
With America's entry into World War II, the U.S. Signal Corps located at Fort Monmouth in Eatontown underwent atremendous growth of both military and civilian personnel. A
In addition, the postwar exodus to Monmouth's suburbs included a large contingent of Sephardi families with their own distinct religious and cultural practices. Many originally emigrated from Syria, settled in New York, and summered in Monmouth's shore communities before moving year round into the Deal and Ocean Township area. The number of Sephardi Jews increased so dramatically that three new Sephardi synagogues opened within a short period in the late 1970s.
From a prewar figure of 7,000 Monmouth's total Jewish population grew to 50,000 by 1977. Most of this growth was in the western part of the county. Mayor Arthur Goldwizweig estimated that in 1977 30% of Marlboro's residents were Jewish; Mayor Stanley Kruschick put the figure in neighboring Manalapan as 50%.
This growth has continued into the 21st century. The median age for Monmouth's 72,500 Jewish residents (divided into 26,000 households) is 41.1 years. They are well educated (55% of the adults have a college degree) and well off (median income is almost double that of all U.S. Jewish households); 54% live in western Monmouth, 32% in eastern Monmouth and about 14% in northern Monmouth. Summer vacationers number about 5,000. Of employed Jews, 52% work in Monmouth County, the rest commute to New York City or North Jersey. Of households surveyed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth 37% consider themselves Conservative, 26% Reform, 9% Orthodox, and 28% "just Jewish." There are 9 Conservative synagogues in the county, 6 Reform, 18 Orthodox, and 2 Traditional.
Four separate Jewish day schools exist in the county: The Hillel Yeshiva in Oakhurst, the Solomon Schechter Academy in Howell, the Shore Hebrew High School in Oakhurst, and the Solomon Schechter Day School in Marlboro.
An intense organizational life accompanied each stage of Monmouth's population growth. Local units of national Jewish organizations with a wide range of aims and purposes developed alongside synagogue religious and social clubs. The Monmouth Jewish Community Council (MJCC) was formed in 1969 to coordinate county-wide rallies for Jews overseas and in Israel. In 1971 several organizations in the shore area affiliated with the Jewish Federation movement and by 1976 most communities within the western and northern areas of the county joined them to create the Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County, which eventually incorporated the MJCC as well. Federation also fostered the formation of the Jewish Family and Children's Service. A similar history of consolidation among YMHAS and YWHAs led to the completion in 1971 of the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center in Deal, which also houses the 500-seat Axelrod Auditorium. Western Monmouth has set up its own Jewish Community Center office and a building drive is underway.
Due to the efforts of Professors Albert Zager and Jack Needle the Center for Holocaust Studies at Brookdale Community Collage in Lincroft was established in 1979. The center, which is the first of its kind in the state, provides educational materials and programs about the Holocaust, genocide, racism, and antisemitism.