TBE had its beginnings in 1934, in an apartment above a clothing store in downtown Hammonton. In August of that year, a small group of people gathered. Rabbi Seligson of Beth Juda Synagogue of Ventnor, NJ. delivered a speech which inspired this group to move forward with the forming of a congregation. They quickly furnished their temporary quarters above Malinsky’s department store, elected their first president, Mr. Julius Miller, formed a sister-hood with Mrs. Samuel Frank as president, and arranged for Rabbi Samuel Herman to be the first spiritual leader.
The idea of forming a synagogue was first presented by Mr. Samuel Kapnek. Kapnek, owner of the “Natural Gas Company”, (now Suburban Gas) became the chairman of the building committee and the first treasurer. Kapnek drew his vision of what the synagogue building would look like, and the architect and builder worked from his crude sketches.
After two years, Joseph Stecker, another local businessman, became president. Other officers were Samuel Frank, Vice President, David Greenberg, secretary, and Jules Press, chairman of the building fund committee.
Thanks to the funding from these and other prominent businessmen, especially William Kessler, ground was broken February 25, 1937, the corner stone was laid April 4th, and the building was dedicated on June 27th of the same year! The original structure included an 8×12 extension, designed to be used as a classroom. The classroom was used to teach Hebrew School and Sunday School to a group of children ages 6 to 13, all at the same time and by one teacher. In later years the room was used as a rabbi’s study, and at one point, a rabbi’s quarters. (Yes, one rabbi actually lived in that room!) Today, that room is again used as a classroom.
The original structure also contained a small kitchen which, some years later, was replaced by the larger kitchen addition we now have. The Temple Beth El sisterhood donated service for 100 people – dishes, utensils, glasses.
The sisterhood also made a commitment to pay off the mortgage and began fundraising towards this effort. They accomplished their goal within two years and a burn-the-mortgage ceremony was held in January, 1940.
A Torah was presented to the synagogue by member Israel Bank when the building was dedicated. Other notable events in the early years were the presentation of a second Torah from the NJ B’nai Brith in October, 1937, the presentation of the memorial tablet donated by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Kapnek in April, 1939, and the dedication of the Temple Beth El honor roll, honoring the members who were in the service May 27th, 1945. (There were 23 TBE sons in the service at that time!)
The 50s and 60s were good years for TBE. Children of the early members, now young adults, married and joined with their spouses. Younger people moving to the area also joined. Also, a number of Holocaust survivors relocated to the Hammonton area to become egg farmers, and they were also welcomed into the congregation.
Eventually, though, as more and more clothing was imported, local factories started to close. The older members, the leaders, either died or moved away. Unfortunately, many of the younger members couldn’t work together, and eventually, without the older leaders, the community dissolved. By the early 70s the synagogue was used only for high holidays and bar mitzvahs, there were no regular services or classes.
But, in 1979, along came a small group of women looking for a place to provide Jewish community and education for their young children. These women were instrumental in reviving Temple Beth El. They built the congregation back up to about 20 families, by calling original members that were still in the area and looking in the phone book for Jewish names. They taught themselves Hebrew so they could teach the Hebrew school. They struggled with the elder male trustees, who were uncomfortable dealing with women, and handled the situation by setting up a board with male officers. And they started using student rabbis from the Reconstructionist college.
Over the years TBE has had a series of rabbis. During the early years, when the congregation could afford it, they hired a rabbi. When they couldn’t, they without a rabbi and members would lead services. Depending on the rabbi of the day, TBE was Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.
The tradition of having student rabbis goes back at least to the early 50s when Rabbi Arthur Soffer joined TBE. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a Master’s Degree in English Literature, Rabbi Soffer had been a teacher at the Mt. Holly Hebrew Center and rabbi at Temple Shalom, in Levittown, PA. He attended the Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion from 1950 until 1955, when he was ordained. He was the Beth-El spiritual leader when he was ordained in 1955 at the Reform Rabbinic seminary in New York School.
TBE continued its association with the Reform movement, although some of the rabbis had Conservative leanings. During the 80’s, TBE was still Reform, despite its association with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Formal affiliation with the Reconstructionist Federation occurred when Goldie Milgram , the student spiritual leader at the time, expressed an interest in continuing as part-time rabbi after her ordination. But, according to her agreement with the college, she could only accept a position with an affiliated congregation. A meeting was held, and the congregation voted to join the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) and have Rabbi Goldie continue. Rabbi Goldie was the Beth El rabbi for a total of nine years.
Following Rabbi Goldie, Lisa Kapin was our student rabbi for a year, after which we welcomed Sigal Brier, as our student spiritual leader. Sigal had been head of our Hebrew School for a number of years. She worked with the children, and then the teens, and then with the entire congregation.
Our next spiritual leader, Jane Berman, joined us in 2003 as a student rabbi. She was with us for 3 years, first as a student rabbi and then as a fully ordained rabbi. Jane brought many wonderful talents with her. Now she has moved from the area and we wish her all the best.
Continuing a long relationship with TBE, Abby Michaleski is our recently ordained rabbi. During Jane’s years as our student rabbi, Abby was our cantorial soloist and director of our Hebrew School. After that, she was our spiritual leader while she studied to become a rabbi. In January, 2015, she was ordained as a rabbi and has continued to provide our religious and spiritual leadership. Please see our Rabbi Abby page for more details.
In 2010 we were clobbered with two snowstorms followed by heavy rains. Our basement classroom, meeting room and kitchen were flooded. Water damage and mold and mildew made the building unusable. The community undertook a large reconstruction project, and after two years of planning, working, and holding events in other locations, we are back in our newly remodeled shul, holding services, classes and special events.
Note: Thanks to the late Mrs. Evelyn Hitman for providing information about the early years.