WOODBINE, N.J. — Welcome to the land that time forgot.
Nestled among the Pine Barrens, some 10 miles from Sea Isle City, sits the proverbial all-American town from a bygone era.
Here, there’s no racial discrimination. No religious persecution. No political backbiting. And, for the most part nowadays, no Jews.
That’s kind of ironic because when the town was created in 1891, thanks to a grant from the Baron Maurice de Hirsch fund, Woodbine was comprised entirely of Jews who’d been rescued from Russia and parts of Eastern Europe and relocated here.
“The idea was to make them ‘of the land,’” explained Jane Stark, executive director of the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage, which combines local history with Jewish history and Holocaust education, while serving as a satellite campus for Stockton University. “Jews were so persecuted in Russia they weren’t allowed to own land.
“The fund sent a soil chemist named Hirsch Loeb Sabsovich to teach them how to make the ground productive. That led to the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School.
“So the Jews in Woodbine were able to sustain themselves, resettle without encountering the kind of difficulties they faced elsewhere — like anti-Semitism — and still practice Judaism. And then they brought factories here. At the height, there were 19 factories, which meant employment.”
It also meant the end of a totally Jewish community. Stark said it has been historically verified to be the first such community since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
But even though Woodbine began to mix cultures, the town never lost its innocence.
That made quite an impression on Brooklyn-born Sam Azeez, whose family moved there when he was a boy. Azeez would become one of the pioneers in the cellphone industry, making a fortune with his company Ultronics. Yet he always held a soft spot for the town where he grew up.
That’s why, following Azeez’s 2000 death, his son, Michael, decided those memories needed to be preserved.
“My father came here when he was 4 years old,” said 60-year-old Michael Azeez (pronounced Ay-zeez), who lived in Woodbine until he was 10, then moved to nearby Tuckahoe. “He always felt like the town raised him as much as his family did. With the success he had, he never forgot about Woodbine.”
At the time of Sam Azeez’s passing, the Ortho-dox synagogue built in 1893 had fallen into disrepair. There had long been talk of the building being torn down or sold to a non-Jewish organization, which horrified neighbors.
“It was closed for years,” recalled Katie Rink, gazing at the totally refurbished sanctuary, where women sat upstairs until 1979 — when they literally dug in their heels to the point you can still see the marks on the floor and refused to be ostracized any longer. “People were talking about selling it, which was blasphemy.
“I grew up in Sea Isle. I have friends who came to this synagogue. I know the names on these walls. I am filled with emotion to see this. They cleaned these bricks with love. It was standing here for years before they decided to restore the building to its glory.”
Services are now held there during the High Holidays, conducted by a local rabbi. And within the past few years, both Bar and Bat Mitzvahs have taken place.
It’s all part of the tour when you enter the museum. The story of Woodbine is told through a series of panels, taking you from its incarnation when the only inhabitants were 92 Jews, to today, with only a handful of Jews among its 1,900 or so residents.
While those numbers have radically changed, one thing hasn’t.
“I told Michael Azeez, ‘You can’t call it a Jewish museum,’” said Stark, who’s been running things here since 2001. “‘Call it the Sam Azeez Heritage Museum instead.’
“This town is famous for its harmonious environment. There’s no racism, no prejudice, no anti-Semitism — still.”
The panels in the refurbished basement of what was called Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue tell that part of the story.
The other part is told through the Holocaust education program the museum offers in conjunction with Stockton University; the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center (a joint venture between the university and the local Jewish Federation) is considered among the finest Holocaust teaching centers in the world, according to Stark.
For those who can’t make it to the university, though, there’s plenty to learn about the Holocaust in Woodbine. And to make sure the story continues to be told, Stark regularly has survivors speak to students.
Those include I. Betty Grebenschikoff, who went from Germany to the Shanghai Ghetto.
“It’s very important I speak to children and tell them my story,” said the 87-year-old Grebenschikoff, who wrote a book Once My Name was Sara, and has appeared in two documentaries, “because my generation is dying out.
“There aren’t many who can speak about these things. Shanghai was an open port, so 20,000 Jews came there in 1939. I was 9 years old. We came from Germany, where they made all the Jewish females ‘Sara’ and all the males ‘Israel.’
“It was the only place you could go without papers. The rest of my extended family was murdered in the camps.”
Such chilling tales can’t help but make an impression on young and old alike.
“Of the 1,500 students we get a year, 99 percent are not Jewish,” Stark said. “We like to take them into a classroom and meet with a survivor.
“Then we take them upstairs to the sanctuary. They’re fascinated because they know nothing about the spiritual aspect of Judaism. They’re amazed at the similarities between Christianity and Judaism.
“And remember, this is in the Pine Barrens. How many people know there was once a vibrant Jewish community here and that vibrant community became a source of great employment and industry during the height of the Depression through the end of World War II?”
They will when they walk through the museum, which is free and open four days a week. And don’t be afraid to bring the little ones. There are all sorts of interactive games and even an arts and crafts area to keep them occupied — and maybe even learn a bit.
Michael Azeez, who still spends a few months a year in Tuckahoe, knows his father would be proud.
“It’s nice to preserve the building and history,” said Azeez, who indicated that he put around $2.5 million into the project, “but it also had to have some relevance.
“Education was one thing my father always pounded home to myself and my three sisters growing up. So we’ve created a program and classroom space that can be used by the community at large.
“I did this out of love for my father and also in appreciation for what the town meant to so many people who came through there getting a start on life. To a large extent, Woodbine is a microcosm of a lot of towns across the U.S. It wasn’t necessarily that it was Jewish, but that it was a community.
“You were a Woodbiner first and then whatever nationality you were, religious background came second.”
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