WOODBINE – A small community may seem “out of the way” for commuters across Cape May County, but Jane Stark knows differently. Stark stands committed to telling the story of the Jewish community and the bigger, multi-cultural picture that continues to unite and surprise us all.
“Whoever heard of Jews in Cape May County?” Stark, 77, said, echoing words she has heard throughout her career as director of the Sam Azeez Museum. Working from home due to COVID-19, Stark unfolded the Jewish saga to the Herald May 20.
How did Russian Jews come to Woodbine?
Stark attributes Woodbine’s settlement to three factors:
- The “great wave” of immigrants coming to America at the turn of the 20th century.
- Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia.
- Jewish men being conscripted into the Russian army.
As families sought religious freedom and better lives, they found an unlikely friend in Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a German financier and philanthropist. De Hirsch used his wealth to assist Jews coming to America, funding their passage, and helping them build new lives. According to Stark, De Hirsch funded three Jewish settlements in Canada, the United States, and Chile, South America. The baron never visited America, said Stark, but his vision continues today; his international organization now sends funds to Israel.
Woodbine was a forest when the settlers came in 1891 and they had to clear the land before building a community. Stark said De Hirsch’s plan was “sophisticated” and that he wanted the immigrants to become Americans.
“They were farmers in freedom,” Stark said. The first crops were cranberries, blueberries, potatoes, and corn.
“The first years were difficult,” she continued. “They did not know how to tame the land.” As subsistance farmers in Russia, the soil of Woodbine was far different than Russia.
Ingenuity and perseverance thankfully won out. Hirsch Loeb Sabsovich, a Jewish chemist, came and taught modern farming methods. Sabsovich also served as mayor of Woodbine. According to historical records, Woodbine was known as "the first self-governing Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem."
Industry came to Woodbine in 1898 and soon three factories sprang up, manufacturing men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. During WWI and WWII, uniforms were made for the armed forces.
“Working conditions were better than in New York City,” Stark said, explaining how more immigrants came to Woodbine. African Americans worked the railroad. Polish and Ukrainian immigrants came, establishing a Russian Orthodox school and church.
Stark said she has interviewed descendants of the first “Woodbiners” who validated the claims of a prosperous and harmonious community. Racial tensions and anti-Semitism did not hold sway, even as the Holocaust ravaged Jewish communities in Europe.
“I’m Irish, Italian, and Jewish,” Stark said. Born in Philadelphia, she did not come to the Jersey Shore until the 1960’s as a single parent. Stark worked as actress Marlo Thomas’ (daughter of TV legend Danny Thomas) assistant before coming to the NBC network affiliate in Wildwood. At 60, Stark’s rabbi asked her to give a Holocaust presentation and, her own words, “the rest is history.” Since then, Stark gives presentations and lectures on Jewish history and the Holocaust.
“I want people to have justice,” Stark said. “I became very involved.”
As director of the Sam Azeez Museum, Stark said she believes in making a difference “one step at a time.” Justice and equality are hallmarks of her faith.
Rabbi Ron Isaacs of Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood also claims justice as part of Judaism’s essence.
The prophet Malachi wrote, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Malachi 6:8, NIV)
As a rabbi, Isaacs said the Bible is the source of Jewish thought and belief in God, what it means to be Jewish. From the covenant made with the patriarch Abraham to the law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, Isaacs said Judaism is more than keeping “rules,” i.e. Sabbath and kosher laws.
“It’s not just about the Law,” Isaacs told the Herald May 18. “The whole purpose of religion is to be an honorable human being.”
Jews also rely on the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinical commentary on what the Bible means.
“If you do Judaism properly,” Isaacs said, “you will make life better for people.” He encourages questions and dialogue between Jews and Christians on the view of God, Jesus Christ, holidays, and issues like abortion.
Isaacs grew up in Canada in a “moderately observant family” before attending rabbinical school in New York City (mid-1960’s). Isaacs said he was inspired to enter the ministry because of the influence of his childhood rabbi who took an interest in him.
Isaacs and his wife Leora lived in Bridgewater for 40 years before coming to Beth Judah.
“They are a lovely group of people,” Isaacs said of the Beth Judah congregation.
Beth Judah Temple traces its roots back to Woodbine. Peddlers brought their produce to Wildwood during the summer in the early 1900s. Jews began worshipping at Max Baker’s house until a congregation formed in 1915. The present temple was built in 1929 and consecrated the same year. Though small in number, Beth Judah is one of two Jewish communities in Cape May County, seeking to pass on and share their faith and traditions.
“What does faith ask of you?” Isaacs said.
Those with a story of faith to share for this ongoing series should contact the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org.