Wildwood Jewish community embracing history and change

​By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice Shore correspondent
Beth Judah Temple will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in the fall. A Gala Weekend is planned for Oct. 24-26.On a Saturday morning in early summer, just a block and a half from the Wildwood Boardwalk, a small group prays inside a quaint, historic temple—the only synagogue in Cape May County. Shabbat services at Beth Judah Temple, a conservative temple that will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary this fall, are intimate and friendly; all present are invited and encouraged to participate on the bima. As the rabbi and participants chant Torah, light streams through Beth Judah’s beautiful stained glass windows, infusing the room with a warm, spiritual glow.

Although there is no cantor, the sanctuary’s excellent acoustics make the room come alive with the music of prayer. The Ark’s green velvet curtains, the relief sculpture of two golden lions facing each other above the Ark, and the art-deco, Jewish-star-bedecked hanging lamps throughout the room transport those who enter Beth Judah Temple’s lovely sanctuary back in time.

The synagogue and its history are telling reflections of the history of Cape May County’s Jewish community. Jewish people arrived in this county in the late 1800s, mostly settling in Woodbine. In summers, the bustling tourist traffic—and the business opportunities they offered—beckoned many Jewish people to Wildwood. By 1915, Wildwood finally had enough Jews to form a congregation. After years of meeting in homes and in hotels, the growing Jewish community built Beth Judah Temple in 1929.

“My wife’s great-great-grandfather was a founder of the synagogue,” said Beth Judah President Dr. Brian Altman. “She is fifth generation.” The Altmans are looking forward to celebrating their daughter’s bat mitzvah there next year. However, he acknowledged that among the 55 or so families that are part of the congregation, there are few younger families like his—because there are now far fewer observant Jewish families in Cape May County.

Today, congregants are primarily retirees, with just a handful of families with younger children. Jewish vacationers also find their way to the shul, along with occasional U.S. Coast Guard boot camp recruits taking a welcome Shabbat respite from the rigors of training.

Despite the fall-off in their numbers, Beth Judah’s members are passionately committed to their small but close-knit Jewish community and to their synagogue’s revitalization. Over the past year, the synagogue has undertaken a strategic planning process, called Kehilla 2014 that has involved congregants in coming up with ideas for strengthening and transforming their synagogue and Jewish community.

“All the research says it’s not about the demographics or the number of people you have, it’s about the commitment and the dedication of the Jewish community to the synagogue. That’s the basis of the survival of a synagogue,” said Gail Cohen, who grew up going to Beth Judah and now facilitates its strategic planning process. “There are small synagogues that are very successful, and others with large memberships that are not successful because people aren’t committed.”

Cohen and others involved in the Kehilla project have been holding focus groups to solicit ideas from temple members and are working on coming up with a new mission statement and action plan for the synagogue. They are also steeped in reading books like “The Self-Renewing Congregation” by Isa Aron, and “Relational Judaism” by Ron Wolfson, which talk about what synagogues can do to revitalize and reinvent themselves so that they remain (or become) a relevant and meaningful part of people’s lives.

The Kehilla committee is also busy planning Beth Judah’s 100th Anniversary Gala Weekend, Oct. 24-26. Like the strategic plan, the weekend seeks to “honor our past, celebrate our present, and build our future,” said Cohen. Weekend activities include a special Friday night service that’s “a little out of the box,” followed by an Asian, kosher-style catered dinner; a “warm, participatory service” on Saturday morning that honors the synagogue’s founding families, an afternoon block party with live Klezmer music; and a Saturday evening concert by “the prince of kosher gospel,” Joshua Nelson.

​The anniversary weekend will conclude with a Sunday morning brunch, where the Kehilla committee will present its action plan. According to Cohen, the plan will “define who we are as a congregation, who we want to be, and our ideas and dreams for securing our future as a vital Jewish community in Wildwood.