The History of Congregation B'nai Israel

Congregation B'nai Israel, Toms River, is a vibrant Conservative Congregation, whose history goes
back to very humble beginnings.


Toms River in the early 1900's was mainly a farming community. Most of the Jewish population
owned and operated chicken farm. Many were refugees from Eastern Europe as well as people from
North Jersey and New York City who wanted to own and work the land. In the early 1920's they built
a building on Old Freehold Road and titled it "Community of Jewish Farmers." They held meetings
and maybe services there. There was no organized congregation at this time. With the rise of Hitler in
Europe came a new wave of Jewish immigration from Germany and again Eastern Europe and so the
Jewish community grew. Most of this second wave of immigration also purchased chicken farms.
Many were not farmers in the old country but it was fairly easy to learn this work. They helped each
other and worked hard and glad to be in this free country.


Many were helped with loans from the Jewish Agricultural Society. At this time the area grew as
well and people of different professions moved to the area. Dr. Solomon Soloff, an optometrist, and his
wife Yetta were very instrumental in establishing a congregation and hiring a Rabbi. Yetta Soloff
always said, "I will not raise Jewish barbarians here."


On May 25, 1949, realizing the need for a formalized Jewish education for our children, as well as
our adults, a group of 30 concerned individuals met at the Community House to organize what is
known as Congregations B'nai Israel. It was proposed at the time that Congregation B'nai Israel
function as the religious arm of the Community of Jewish Farmers. In 1950 Congregation B'nai Israel
officially joined, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. The original membership consisted of
120 families and 28 students in our Talmud Torah. We then searched for a Rabbi for this young
Congregation. We had several young Rabbis, that served us on one and two year contracts. Rabbi
Simcha Rabinowitz served our Congregation from 1954 to 1961. The Hebrew School was his priority
and he set high standards for us. Rabbi Rabinowitz also made sure that we started a Jewish youth
group.


During Rabbi Rabinowitz’s tenure we also outgrew the facilities of the Community of Jewish Farmer
building and embarked on a building campaign. We purchased two chicken farms on Old Freehold
Road, across the street from the community building. With a successful campaign we dedicated and
moved into the new building on December 25, 1959. Still under the leadership of, Rabbi Rabinowitz.
Some of the old timers did not want to come to the new building for services and continued their own
services in the old building. They later became a reform congregation.


Dr. Solomon Soloff, was our first president and remained that for eight years. His wife Yetta, started
the Sisterhood. She was Sisterhood's second president. Our second president was Irving Rosen, who
owned an electrical supply business in town. His son Zev, later ran the business and now the
grandson, David is in charge. Zev was President of Congregation B'nai Israel from 1969-1974.
Our third President was Simon Schwartz. He owned an office supply business in downtown
Toms River. He kept the office of president from 1960-1967. He, later in the early 80's was
President of United Synagogue and after that of Mercaz. His son Norton is the retired United
States Air Force Chief of Staff.

Our next major project was to purchase land for a cemetery. We once again purchased a chicken farm in
the 1950s. The first burial at our own cemetery was in 1961. We later purchased some additional land
adjacent to the cemetery to insure enough space for several generations.


Our community continued to grow, as did our membership. At its height the membership was at
500. After Rabbi Rabinowitz retired we enjoyed the able leadership of Rabbi Herbert Weinberg. He
was with us several years until he made Aliyah to Israel. We then went through a period of several
Rabbis of short duration, until Rabbi Hammerman took the position in 1975 until his retirement in
2006.
Under Rabbi Hammerman’s leadership the tenor and culture of the Congregation changed. Due to the
growth of the area and the membership. In 1975, when Rabbi Hammerman arrived the congregation
was still dominated by a European-oriented style of prayer and religious expectations. Those with the
best backgrounds were members whose origins went back to Europe. Over the course of these thirty
years, with a constant influx of new members, most of whom were American trained and native to
this country, the culture of the congregation changed. A few of the new members had the benefit of
yeshiva training and some were U.S.Y and Ramah alumni.


At some time, perhaps late 1950s or early 1960's we were in need of and able to afford a full time
Cantor. The Cantor's duties would include Bar Mitzvah lessons in addition to all cantorial duties and
torah reading. Here again we had several Cantors of short duration until 1973. In 1973, the
Congregation hired Cantor Daniel Green who remained with us until his retirement in 2006, however
remains a part of the congregation daily. He set high standards for us, especially in Bar and Bat
Mitzvah teachings and Torah reading and he guided us to come as close to perfect as one can get.
Cantor Green conducted the B'nai Israel choir, a volunteer choir made up of our members. He also had
a youth choir made up of children from our Hebrew school.


In the Early 80's we were in need of additional space to serve our growing congregation; once again
we went on a building campaign, doubled the size of our building, and accomplished this without
taking on an additional mortgage. We were fortunate to have, as a member, Larry Simpson. Larry
was a very fine commercial builder and a very good finance manager. The new addition was
dedicated on October 9, 1983.


Also in the early l980's we thought of the future financial needs of the Congregation and started an
endowment fund. Today it generates enough income to substantially support the Hebrew School and
enables us to give scholarships to our high school students for a summer program in Israel. A care fund
was also started to assist members in need. Congregation B'nai Israel always has an outstanding youth
group. Over the decades they have won many awards, including Chapter of the Year on multiple
occasions in the Hagalil Region.


Present day, Congregation B’nai Israel is led by Rabbi Bill Gershon, originally from Ocean Township,
NJ, but has spent his career prior to joining us in 2018 in Dallas, Minnesota and Detroit. Rabbi Gershon
is a “Rabbi’s Rabbi” having lead the Rabbinic Assembly as President and been a member of several
Rabbinic Assembly leadership committees. In 2020, Cantor Jacob Greenberg has joined Rabbi Gershon
as the “dynamic duo”, after his recent graduation from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Creating Jewish Memories at the Jersey Shore.