1. History
    1. Founding History
    2. Blast From the Past


Founding History of Congregation Beth Mordecai

The text below is excerpted from Perth Amboy’s Jewish Community: History, Memories, Tribute, by Robert Spector with Marilyn Millet Goldberg, Jane Sanders Leal, and Mona Shangold, pages 31, 33, 45, copyright Friends of Perth Amboy Jewish History, Inc. 2012, by permission of Friends of Perth Amboy Jewish History, Inc.  All rights reserved. 

For information about purchasing the book, send your request for an order form to the publishers at PAJewishBook@aol.com

A postcard of Temple Beth Mordecai

In 1895, two groups broke away from the First Perth Amboy Hebrew Mutual Aid Society and formed organizations of their own. One group, composed of the more liberal elements of the society, established the Hebrew Progressive Association. The other group made up of the members of the society who had originated in Germany and Hungary, formed an organization that held services in a rented hall.

The pivotal figure in the formation of this latter organization was Henry Wolff. Born in East Prussia in 1845, he immigrated to the United States in 1860 and began his American journey as a peddler in North Carolina. By 1878, Henry Wolff was living in South Amboy, where he ran a dry goods/department store and invested in real estate. He married German-born Mina Kaufmann, who gave birth to a sun son named Max (Mordecai). In 1894, Max died at a young age of a ruptured appendix.

Wolff donated two building lots on Hobart Street and helped finance the construction of a synagogue. It was named Beth Mordecai, in memory of his son. 


The foundation plaque for the original building on Hobart Street makes it’s current home in the chapel of the synagogue

The first officers were: Adolph Greenbaum, president; Jacob Goldberger, vice-president; Henry Wolff, treasurer; Jacob Kreilsheimer, financial secretary; William Gross, recording secretary; Louis Kreilsheimer, trustee; Herman Kollisch; trustee. The Building Committee included Kassel Finkelstein, Joseph Bruck Max Goldberger, and Selig Pett. All proceedings were conducted in the English language. Also in 1897, the Ladies Auxiliary (Sisterhood) was formed, with Mina Wolff elected the first president.

The wooden building on Hobart Street opened its doors in the fall of 1897 as an Orthodox synagogue, with men and women seated on separate sides. There were no funds for a permanent rabbi. Dues were $10 for two seats.

The building was dedicated by Stephen S. Wise, a 23-year-old Austro-Hungarian-born Zionist leader who served at the time as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in New York City, and later became a well-known Reform rabbi. Wise retained his connection with Temple Beth Mordecai for the next 50 years.  In 1927, he spoke at the 30th-anniversary celebration, and 20 years later, he spoke at the 50th-anniversary celebration, one of his last public appearances.

The pioneering members of Beth Mordecai included Isaac Rubinstein, Edward Kramer, Charles Safran, I. Silverman, J. Schlesinger, I. Goodman, A. L. Kaufman, J. Weinberg, E. Samet, P. Joselson, Morris Slobodien, A. Beckhoff, N. Light, Max Kaufman, Aaron Gross, Joseph Slobodien, E. Sell, A. Kaufman H. Lewinson, Charles Taussig, M. Levinson, M. Hess, and S. Gross.

The first wedding in the Hobart Street Temple was that of Esther Greenbaum and Joseph L. Klein. Herman Philo was the first choirmaster. Pauline Philo and Elsie and Belle Goldberger sang in the choir for over 42 years.

Although its membership grew steadily, Henry Wolff had to stop in at least once to save the temple financially.

In 1922, on the 25th anniversary of Congregation Beth Mordecai, Wolff presented the canceled mortgage to the congregation, clearing the temple of indebtedness. A banquet followed at the Packer House on Smith Street. The food was strictly kosher, at $3.00 per person.

Henry Wolff died in June 1930, but his impact would live on for decades. His legacy was continued by his son-in-law Charles Safran (1872-1948) and his daughter Rachel Wolff Safran (1879-1944), who lived with Henry in his home on Feltus Street in South Amboy, across the street from his store. The Wolff/Safran story reads like a tale by Charles Dickens.

Hungarian-born Charles (Karlis) Safran orphaned at a young age, was taken to New York by his sister and brother-in-law in 1883. When they could no longer afford to care for Charles, he was placed in a Jewish orphanage. In search of help for his store, Henry Wolff visited the orphanage and took Charles home with him. Rachel fell in love with Charles. They were married in  around1905 and had two children, Ira (1907-1985) and Melvin (1913-1998). Charles served several terms as president of Temple Beth Mordecai. Ira also served a term as president.

. . . . .

The foundation stone of the building on High Street

In the early years, Beth Mordecai was an Orthodox congregation. But in 1921, spurred by lobbying from younger members, it became Conservative, affiliated with the United Synagogue of America. Mixed pews were introduced. The first organ was donated by Albert Leon, an emigre from Germany, who owned the largest store in Perth Amboy, a furniture store on the corner of State and Smith Streets.

With the growth of the Conservative Jewish population in Perth Amboy, Beth Mordecai moved into a large, modern building on High Street, which was dedicated in April 1927. In attendance was Dr. Stephen S. Wise, who had attended the opening of the first temple in 1897. . . . The other noteworthy guest speaker was 71-year-old Louis B. Marshall, a famed corporate, constitutional, and civil rights lawyer, mediator, and Jewish community leader, who was among the founders of the American Jewish Committee and the NAACP.


 Blast From the Past

Take a trip through memory (and history) lane as we share some videos and pictures describing the history of Beth Mordecai. 


Each post from “Blast From the Past” is shared on our Facebook page on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 5 pm, and then embedded into the website. Click here (or the title above) to view a collection of all of our “Blast From the Past” posts.

Do you have a video, a document, a picture, a newspaper clipping, or an artifact detailing the history of Beth Mordecai and the Perth Amboy Jewish community? Send it to us at socialmedia.bethmordecai@gmail.com