CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY
PARKSIDE & CONGREGATION BETH EL
In early March of 2006 I received a wonderful letter from Rabbi David Herman of Baltimore MD. I hadn't read very far into the letter when I realized that this was something very special.
I had known David when we were both young.... I'm a few years older. His father, Cantor Louis Herman, served Congregation Beth El in Camden for many years, and instructed me as I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah in 1968. His mother, Mrs. Yetta Hermann, also taught me, at the Hebrew school at Congregation Beth El when it was still located on Park Boulevard in Camden's Parkside section.
The letter Rabbi Herman sent is a quite wonderful, in-depth, and detailed recollection of people and events in Parkside and at Beth El before the congregation moved to Cherry Hill.
With the help of my dear friend Livia Wrigley, who re-typed the letter, I am presenting it here, with minor editing and hyperlinks added. Enjoy!
March 12, 2006
February 26, 2006
By of introduction, my name is David Herman and I live in Baltimore Maryland. I lived in the Parkside section from 1958 to 1968 when we moved in May of that year to Cherry Hill. My dad, who passed away last year, was the Cantor at Congregation Beth El from 1957 until 1982 when he retired. The Synagogue was located at Park Boulevard and Belleview Avenues from 1920 until 1968 when the Shul relocated to Chapel Avenue in Cherry Hill. I understand the Synagogue (Shul) complex was razed two years ago to make way for the Boys and Girls Club facility on Park Boulevard. Lewis Katz, a prominent attorney, endowed the Boys and Girls Club facility and he grew up literally at Beth El along with his sister Sandy.
Parkside [In David's time - PMC] was a homogenous mix of Jews, Greeks, Poles, Italians and African-Americans. It was predominately Jewish until the mid 1960’s when families began to trek to the newer developments in the suburbs. My family first lived in a Shul owned house at 1227 Magnolia Avenue. Later, we moved to 1507 Baird Avenue (later named Boulevard) where we resided until 1968. This property belonged to the Shul as it was expected that all Shul officiaries be Shomer Shabbas (Sabbath observers) and live within walking distance to the Shul. Prior to our move to 1507 Baird Avenue, Rabbi Harry B. Kellman, his wife Ruth and their daughter Nadine lived in the house until a new modern ranch house was built for him on Kaighn Avenue across from Farnham park. Rabbi Kellman was the Rabbi of Beth El from 1947 until his retirement in 1969.
Across the street from us lived the Camden Sheriff Jersey Joe Walcott who was a large man with a big heart and a sweet personality. He ran a home for troubled youth in this house and I used to play with some of the kids he took in. As you know, his real name was Arnold Cream. Next door to us, at 1503 Baird, lived Jack Naden and his wife. He had a son Ralph who became a big criminal defense attorney in New York City. Jack Naden was very learned in Judaic matters and was able to conduct services at Beth El as well as read books of the Talmud in Aramaic and of course Hebrew. He was also involve in the Talmud Torah with Rabbi Riff. At 1502 Baird lived the Cutler family and then later the Singer family. Our home was a large four bedroom semidetached building. Living attached to us on our right at 1509 Baird was a Greek family and the husband was a pharmacist. They moved out in the 1960’s and sold the property to the Fortune family. I used to play with Karen Fortune. The Fortunes were an African-American family. Her brother used to baby-sit me.
In the 1960’s the Naden family moved and sold the house to the Foster family whose daughter Ann has sent an email to the Camden website about growing up in Parkside. They too were African-American. Until we moved in 1968, we lived in racial harmony with our neighbors with mutual respect. Color did not make a difference.
The Fosters owned a dog named Minky who was always digging up Mr. Foster’s beautiful garden and burying his dog bones. It took a long to convince Mr. Foster I did not dig up the garden. A narrow walkway separated our house. On our side was dirt around the side of the Herman house. On the Foster side was concrete. The Fosters planted a vegetable garden on our side and shard the vegetables with us. Once again, just lovely neighbors. Towards 1967-1968, tensions surface in the area. Much of it I believe came out of Camden High School which was about two blocks away (down the street). One time the militant H. Rap Brown held a rally at Camden High School. Jersey Joe Walcott showed up and made him leave. Unfortunately the crowd was stirred up and vandalism occurred. My dad’s car antenna was broken off. Other cars around the area had tires slashed. Not a very proud time.
In April 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was a Thursday evening. Everyone was on edge for problems. Friday morning Mayor Pierce called Rabbi Kellman and asked him to cancel late Friday evening services at Beth El because of concerns that our neighbors would hear singing emanating from the sanctuary of the Shul at a time of mourning for the country and it would not be in good taste. More than likely it was a public safety concern. Rabbi Kellman agreed and cancelled services.
Beth El was really the enter of activity for the Jewish community in Parkside. From early morning, beginning with the daily Minyan at 7:30 AM until late at night, the building was filled with activities. Actually, it was a large complex of buildings. Mayor Brunner was instrumental in helping the Shul acquire the land [for the school building- PMC]. The property actually began at the corner of Baird Avenue and Park Boulevard and continued to Park Boulevard and Belleview Avenue. There was a two family duplex which housed Reverend and Mrs. Dov Gilden and their children Leon and Elaine. Reverend Gilden was the Shul shammas or sexton and he was responsible for teaching Bar Mitzvah boys how to read the Torah, run the Minyanim (daily services) and read the Torah when necessary. He was a gentle soul who survived the holocaust. He unfortunately passed away several years ago. His wife, Freida, also a holocaust survivor, taught nursery school in the Shul nursery in the house next door facing the park. The house still stands as well as the duplex. The other part of the two family duplex was occupied by Rabbi Isaac Furman and his wife Molly (Mrs. Gilden’s sister) and their two daughters Esther and Phyllis. Rabbi Furman, also a holocaust survivor, was the principal of both the day school (which was know as the Beth El Academy) and of the afternoon religious school which was in session on Sunday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:15 PM. In the evenings, the Shul school building, which was two stories tall, fireproof and dedicated in 1949 was alive with adult education classes, Boy Scout Troop 18 meetings, board meetings, choral group rehearsals with Cantor Herman, etc. Again, always activity.
Attached to the school building was the main sanctuary and beneath that the auditorium, scene of luncheons, shows, meetings, musical performances, wedding receptions, Bar-Mitzvah receptions, sisterhood and brotherhood meetings and events. Bas-Mitzvahs didn’t start at the Shul until after the move to Cherry Hill.
On the other side of that, facing Belleview Avenue, was the original Shul building, which was built quickly in 1920 with a small chapel on the second floor and classrooms on the lower floor with a kitchen. The chapel was used daily for the morning services except for Shabbas and holidays when the main sanctuary was used and the chapel was used by the Junior congregation services first led by Mrs. Yetta Herman, (my mother) then Mrs. Gerry Ostrov. It should be noted that the day school was organized by Rabbi Kellman, Mrs. Yetta Herman, and the then principal Dr. Samuel Rosenbloom. Rabbi Kellman drew on my mother’s experiences because she had also started the Germantown Jewish Center nursery school in Philadelphia. Both the Beth El Academy and the religious school boasted a large attendance of hundreds of students thru the 1960’s. Congregation Sons of Israel, which by the 1960’s had relocated to the corner of Kaighn Avenue and Park Boulevard, a block away, also had an active Hebrew school. Both synagogues maintained close, warm relations primarily due to the personality of the late Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Riff, a man who loved everyone, and everyone loved him. It was not unusual in the late 1960’s for Beth El to send over people to help Sons of Israel with the Minyan when they fell short with their required ten men. The same held true when Beth El was short and Sons of Israel would send over people.
Many people in Camden maintained dual membership. They belonged to Beth El but also supported and belonged to Sons of Israel out of love and respect for Rabbi Riff who was a scholar. It should be noted that Rabbi Riff, though responsible for the Talmud Torah building and educational classes on Kaighn Avenue across from Victory Garage, the original Sons Of Israel at 8th and Sycamore and another Shul, “Ohev Zedeck”, and was responsible for Kosher meat in the city, never made enough according to his accountant Ed Natal to pay taxes during World War II. Nevertheless, Mr. Natal told me during the war Rabbi Riff voluntarily sent $100.00 to the United States Treasury Department as an act of gratitude to the United States government in their efforts to defeat Fascism, and of course, Hitler. Rabbi Riff would also go out late on Thursday nights and personally deliver food packages for poor families for Shabbas. One time, at 3:00 AM, he was picked up by a police patrol car who observed him dropping “something” on someone’s porch and then running away. Only after the police woke up the family, who explained what the Reverend Rabbi was doing out at 3:00 AM and what the package was, was Rabbi Riff free to go. After this incident, my father, of blessed memory Cantor Louis J. Herman and others volunteered to drive the Rabbi around town in the wee hours on his missions of mercy.
From June of 1968 until September when the last Beth El service was held in Parkside, my father and other members of Beth El staff had to take rooms at the Oasis Motel [on Admiral Wilson Boulevard- PMC] for Shabbas and walk up the hill to Park Boulevard for services at Beth El as most of the Jewish community had left Parkside by that time and there was no place to house the personnel for Shabbas. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to spend Shabbas where you have on one side men of God in the building and on the other side of the motel ladies of the night.
During the summer and fall convoys of trucks carrying tomatoes packed in baskets from top to bottom rolled down Baird Avenue on the way to Campbell Soup. It was not unusual that youngsters would wait until the truck would stop for the red light at Kaighn and Haddon and pull out the bottom basket thereby creating an avalanche of tomatoes which they quickly scooped up and brought home.
The park [Farnham Park- PMC] until the late 1960's was well maintained until a series of floods brought the Cooper River over it’s banks. There were trails, pavilions, climbing gyms, swings, see-saws and fountains for drinking that actually worked.
In early 1960, across from Beth El, the city came up with an idea to build an ice arena in the park. Trees were destroyed, excavation began and finally Rabbi Kellman prevailed upon the mayor and city fathers that the rectangular building would be an eyesore. Common sense prevailed. The hole in the ground was filled in, construction stopped, but sadly, the lost trees were never replaced.
More on Rabbi Riff. When he retired in 1966 to move to Bnei Brak Israel, he was honored at a farewell dinner. I think the dinner was at the Cherry Hill Inn although the Walt Whitman Hotel is a possibility. Rabbi Riff, with his great sense of humor, reminisced about his over 50 years in Camden. My father of blessed memory told the following as he participated in the program and sang in honor of Rabbi and Mrs. Riff. Rabbi Riff told the large audience in Yiddish "When I first came to Camden I had a long black beard the neighborhood was white. Now as I am retiring, I have a long white beard the neighborhood is black.” You have posted a picture of Rabbi Riff in front of Kaighn Avenue Talmud Torah. On the far right, the gentleman with the gray beard who is standing, is Rabbi B.L. Levinthal, Chief Rabbi of Philadelphia and a dean of Talmudic studies at Yeshiva College, later know as Yeshiva University in New York.
Rabbi Riff & Study Group
Congregation Sons of Israel - 1944
Rabbi Riff is seated, front row center, in front of Congregation Sons of Israel. On the far right, the gentleman with the gray beard who is standing, is Rabbi B.L. Levinthal, Chief Rabbi of Philadelphia and a dean of Talmudic studies at Yeshiva College, later know as Yeshiva University in New York.
I’ve included some information on the late world renown Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. My late father sang in his famous choir from 1925 to 1927 and traveled with him. (Red Buttons also and in the choir although not with my dad). Cantor Rosenblatt sang in the fist talking film “the Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson. The Cantor made frequent visits to Camden to the Victor Talking Machine Compnay studios [later known as R.C.A.-Victor] to make his world famous records. My father accompanied him to Camden to make these recordings and he even sang on some of the records. It is ironic that over 30 years later the young soprano from Cantor Rosenblatt’s choir would return to Camden now as a tenor to become Cantor at Beth El! Also in the choir was Michael Bursook brother of the child star Bobbie Breen.
During my father’s career, he sang for or worked with the following notable people; General Allenby who capture Palestine from the Turks; Chaim Weitzman, first president of Israel; Abba Eban, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and statesman; Lou Jacobi, actor; Lorne Green, Jewish star from Toronto and actor on the Bonanza television show; Michael Landon, Wayne and Shuster, comedians and stars on Ed Sullivan's TV show; actor Ben Blue; actor Lloyd Bochner; Merv Griffin, and Robert Alda (Alan Alda’s father). The list goes on and on. At another time, if you are interested, I’ll provide you with newspaper clippings and pictures.
Rabbi David E. Herman
We spoke once before. However, I came across that lovely letter of Rabbi David Hermann recounting his halcyon days in Parkside. I often wondered whatever happened to David. I am exceedingly pleased to hear of his profession and mission.
David and I shared quite a few comedic moments together and the story of him having to be suspect to the digging of my dad's flowers was so funny, I feared the city heard me laughing. I shared that letter with my mother who is now under nursing care at this moment. She chuckled as well. Yes (M)inky was our all-time favorite pet.
He has quite a penchant for facts and details; something that was a part of him in his youth!!! LOLOLOL!!!!! And what a glorious gift in a time when we're all about losing our memory.
Glad to know he lives in the illustrious city of Baltimore. Please tell him, Tim Watts, a major Radio DJ used to live directly across from our house where a well-respected Jewish Judge once lived. Tim is now the General Manager of a major Radio Station Magic 95.9 (WWIN-FM) in B'more:
Eric Jackson is also formerly of Parkside, having lived on the 1200 block of Langham Avenue. He is a major DJ in Boston:
I may have shared this in my previous email to you. However, many great people have their beginnings in this shadowed city. Amazing that Sam Dash, the Watergate Prosecutor, had his beginnings in Camden. One of my cousins, Peg Alston, is a nationally acclaimed Art Dealer in NYC, with a Gallery in Central Park West.
I wish you well.
Rabbi Herman used several terms in the Hebrew language that may be unfamiliar to the reader. I've provided some very simple definitions, which I hope will be helpful to the reader- Phil Cohen
Minyan- a twice-daily religious service, at which a minimum of 10 Jewish men are required to be present.
Minyanim- plural of minyan
Shabbas- sabbath, in the Jewish religion from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.
Talmud- Jewish law
Torah- the Old Testament in Hebrew
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