Sunday, December 11, 2016

Neziner Shul in Philadelphia Formed By Hasidim from Nezhin in Chernigov Province.

I decided to write a post about the Neziner Shul in Philly at the turn of the Century. I do this because while researching it I've met many people online who were trying to find pictures and hard information about this Synagogue that had been a part of their ancestor's lives but no longer exists. Their ancestors came from the same region as mine and there was a reference here or there about it's existence. It's somewhat unique in that it's early members came mostly from the same town of Nezhin in the Province of Chernigov. It's also unique as many were from families who were followers of Chabad Chasidim who upon arriving in America chose to start a Shul to pray according to Nusach Ari otherwise known as Arizal's Prayer Liturgy. The link below explains what this means far better than I can. What I can explain is that even in the New World people tried to hold onto things meaningful to them, especially on a spiritual level. Judaism is a communal religion in many ways. When someone loses a loved one they need to say Kaddish with a Minyon, a set number of people in this case 10 men.  While a person can pray privately anywhere, he needs others to perform certain prayers and customs. To paraphrase a book ... ittakes a village and a village was formed in Philadelphia by people from Nezhin at the turn of the Century while starting over in the New World of America.

People often prefer their stuffed cabbage the way their Mother made it yet some mothers add raisins and others do not. People made Gefilte Fish once upon a time, now days people in Brooklyn buy sushi at the Kosher Bakery for Friday Night dinner. Styles and menu change over time and Shabbos goes on without losing a beat. Food is one thing but the way a person prays is not as easily changed as trying a sushi for the first time on a dare. Over time some people remained strong in their manner of faith and other's lost their traditions one tradition at a time as they moved deeper into the American lifestyle.

In Tampa my Great Grandparents were involved in a court case regarding the original synagogue in Tampa as they refused to change to what was called "Minhag American" that included prayers in English and other practices they didn't wish to adopt. Others who had come before them, mostly from Germany, had bit by bit changed over to the newer customs and yearned for a more Americanized service. The 6th District Court of Appeals in Florida ruled in favor of the American way of doing things and the Orthodox Jews formed another Shul named Rodeph Shalom that remained for many years more traditional synagogue in town. It still exists today as a Conservative Synagogue in the Tampa Bay area.

This drama was playing out across America both in the Northern Industrialized Cities and in small towns in the South such as Tampa, Florida. New immigrants had to define who they would be in America. Another name for the Neziner Shul in Philadelphia was Ahavas Achim Anshei Nusach Ha-Ari – Brotherly Love Men of Nezhin. It served a purpose both on a spiritual level as well as a social level and members could help newcomers find a job, a place to live and maybe a nice girl to marry.

A picture of the 6th Chabad Rebbe becoming an American Citizen.
Video of the event is in the link below.

When the previous Chabad Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson came to America in the 1940s he made the statement that America was not different. He dedicated his life to rebuilding "Jewish Life" and keeping it alive in America. There was the feeling in those Post World War 2 days that in America things were different and you had to change to survive in the world. To work on Saturday or not was the same question that the Jews in Tampa and Key West had to make years before. People had done that for years as they moved to the "New World" but after the horrors of the Holocaust the question became more compelling. This was really nothing new as Jews changed their names in Manchester, in Ireland and South Africa. Some did and some did not. Over time many changed, many did not.

Elie Wisel addressed those fears, concerns and shared his thoughts in his many of his books. Even the question of whether to bother getting married was a concern for Elie Wiesel after things he witnessed in the Holocaust. The story of his questioning the purpose of getting married in the world then is in the link below.

In truth there is often a moment in our lives when we question who we are and who we want to be. What is unique about the Neziner Shul is that they really didn't question it when they came over, they simply went about doing what they had done back in Nezhin, in the Chernigov Province in the Ukraine. They formed a Shul where they could pray in accordance with their traditions.

A demographic study was done on the Nezhiner Synagogue that is interesting. It's available through JSTOR. It's a shame no one has done a demographic study to see a century later how many of the descendants of those early members are still Orthodox, Conservative or who have assimilated or perhaps made Aliyah to Israel? How many of them have made their way back to Chabad where their roots began before coming to America?

A snippet is below.

After WW2 many Jews were confronted by the reality of the Holocaust and many questioned their faith in God and sometimes even if it was worth being Jewish. I have a friend in Miami who became President of one of the largest Synagogues on Miami Beach. He was raised in Queens with the name Christopher not knowing he was Jewish. Life was good. He went to public school and watched the Yankees play and he didn't think much on the Holocaust. When he was older he found out a distant relative had died. Imagine his shock when he discovered his Grandfather was Jewish. It seems that his parents felt they could best protect him by moving to the suburbs of Queens and pretending to be Christians who didn't bother going to Church. After the horrors of the Holocaust and the pogroms before that many Jews pondered passing into American society with American names, clothes and jettisoning their traditions. Chris threw himself into his newly found Jewish roots and dedicates many hours to his new found Synagogue. Chris, came to the same conclusion as the 6th Chabad Rebbe that America is no different.

Secretary of State John Kerry found out a while back that his Great Grandparents had simply crossed over into Switzerland where no one knew them and started over with a new name and a new religion. He wasn't the first one to find out he had Jewish Roots. Many Cubans originally were Anusim who ran away from Spain and took their chances on a small, primitive island in the Caribbean than in Spain and the Inquisition. They pretended to be Catholics who didn't go to Church much and kept fig trees in their back yards as a secret sign to others neighbors who tended fig trees and had hidden Jewish roots. I have more than one friend from Cuba who found out the family came from Jewish Roots when the Grandfather died and the oldest living son was given the box hidden in the closet with an ancestors prayer shawl from Spain. It seems Madeline Albright also discovered Jewish roots in her family tree. Ironically, many Scottish, Irish and German Americans who have taken DNA tests have found out they also have European Jewish Roots. Go figure the Melting Pot of America strikes again!

The Nezhin Shul in Philadelphia was formed at the turn of the Century. It was a statement of faith and belief in the ways of their ancestors. It provided a familiar, spiritual safe space in the larger new world of life in Philadelphia. They held social functions, they had holiday programs, they married and buried people. Many couples met there as my Grandparents did and then they moved away to where ever Jews moved in those days in search of making money and raising their families. Organizations to help families and friends in Nezhin were formed, money was sometimes sent overseas. Over time the neighborhood changed, times changed, people moved away.  In my case my Grandpa Ben ended up in Miami, Florida.

The end game for the Nezhiner Shul is that it was turned into a Condo. How totally American is that? The Nezhiner Court Condos sits just a bit away from the Street with it's original courtyard.

I wonder if someone is running an Air B&B there...
Looks cute.

Ironically my friend Chris in Miami Beach drives a Delorean.

Perhaps some Shul member ended up in Cincinnatti.
It seems the Stained Glass windows did.

Again some links below for people who wish to do more research.

For anyone doing family research Good Luck.
It's not easy.
Grandpa Ben came to America as Berel, his given name was Ber.
My Aunt told me her father's name was really Dov Ber but he went by Berel.
So Ber Ben Yonah Chitrick Ha Levi became Ben Rick.
His mother was Sarah Beila Rosen as I said in a previous post.
She was born in Nezhin to Gavriel and Libby Rosen.

A picture of him and my grandmother is below.

Today the 11th of Kislev was his Yarzeit.
This article is in his memory.
And my Great Grandmother who sent him to America...
... to her relatives who had made the trip before him.

My Hebrew name is Bracha Bas Chana.
My mother Chana became a Ba'al Teshuvah in the 1960s.
That means she returned to Orthodoxy and became Chabad again.
That's another story for another day.
In Miami she rediscovered the way her ancestors lived in Europe.
As the dove found land after the flood.
My mother found her way back over time.
And my children, her grandchildren, pray Nusach Ari.
My brother and I at my grandson's Bar Mitzvah in Crown Heights.
.... at the Jewish Children's Museum.

Bentching after the meal.
Saying "Grace After Meals"
If you are in Brooklyn it's worth the trip.

Thanks for reading.
Good luck finding your Jewish Roots!

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