Monmouth County: The Jewish Newport of the Jersey Shore

July 20, 2012
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By Sharon Hazard

RED BANK – As part of its yearlong 75th anniversary celebration, Red Bank’s Eisner Memorial Library sponsored a presentation about Monmouth County called the “Jewish Newport of the Jersey Shore.”

Jean Klerman, a member of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, traced the assimilation of the Jewish immigrant from the first documented arrival in Monmouth County as early as 1716. At that time Jewish immigrants were peddlers, selling their wares door-to-door from backpacks or, if they were really doing well, from wagons. The first Jewish Monmouth County resident, a Freehold merchant, appeared in court records in 1720. But it wasn’t until the influx of German-speaking Jewish immigrants during the Civil War-era that the first permanent Jewish communities sprang up in Monmouth County. Klerman noted that 200,000 German-Jews came to the United States in the mid-1880s.

Many in this group took street peddling to the next level and established businesses on Main Streets throughout the county. Klerman’s presentation, produced along with Marc Diament, traced many of these storeowners. “By the late 1880s, there was a sizable German-Jewish presence in Keyport, a major transportation and commercial hub on the Raritan Bay. The Blochs from Bohemia owned a clothing store; the Salzes, also from Bohemia, had a dry goods store there and opened a second business in Red Bank. Sally Rice Levy, a widow with five sons, came to Keyport from Tennessee after the Civil War, having arrived in New Orleans from Germany in the 1850s. One of the Levy Brothers started a business that was a landmark on Main Street in Freehold for many years.” Jacob Kreidel had a thriving men’s clothing store on the corner of Broad and Front Street in Red Bank for many years.

Of course no mention of the rags-to-riches story of the German-Jew would be complete without including Sigmund Eisner. Klerman spoke of his marriage to Bertha Weiss whose family owned a “Temple of Fashion” in Red Bank. She also spoke of his world-renowned uniform factory. Located in Red Bank, the factory’s financial success was what enabled Eisner to become a prolific philanthropist and civic leader. The Eisner Family bequeathed their home on Front Street to Red Bank for use as a public library in 1937.

Jan Eisner of Atlantic Highlands, left, the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Eisner, with her mother, Marylyn Eisner Beckwith of Navesink during a talk at the Red Bank library about the history of Jews in Monmouth County. The Eisner family, whose history was part of the presentation, bequeathed their Front Street home to Red Bank for use as a public library in 1937.

During the presentation Klerman introduced Jan Eisner, great-granddaughter of Sigmund Eisner, and her mother Madylyn Eisner Beckwith who were in the audience.

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Other prominent German-Jews mentioned during the presentation were Ambassador Abraham Elkus, Frank Marx, the first Jewish resident of Shrewsbury, and Moses Kahn who owned a meat market in Long Branch. Goldstein’s and Steinbach’s Department Stores in Long Branch were also retailing success stories.

As this group gravitated to the shore, a number of hotels catering to the Jewish middle-class opened. The Atlantic Hotel in Long Branch strictly observed kosher law in its food preparation. Its owner, Aaron Cristaler, was reported to be capable of accommodating 500 guests of “the Hebrew Faith and mostly those of the greatest character and wealth.”

In 1877, despite his enormous wealth and accomplishments, Joseph Seligman, a Wall Street banker, and his family were denied accommodations at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, N.Y. The anti-Semitic owner did not allow Jews to stay in his establishment. At the same time Newport, R.I. and other prominent “watering holes” were following the same rules. But Monmouth County’s eastern coastline was a welcoming respite.

By the turn of the 20th century, Klerman said, “There developed a Jewish resort community of unprecedented wealth and accomplishment, boasting such illustrious family names as the Seligmans, Shiffs, Lehmans, Lewisohn, Guggen­heims and Warburgs. This community of nouveau riche added a whole new distinctive luster to Monmouth County Jewish history.”

German-Jews selected the Jersey Shore as their prime vacation destination. “A place where their wealth afforded them a lifestyle of comfort, 10-course meals, charity balls, entertainment, fashion, sport and sociability against a backdrop of an ever-changing ocean vista,” said Klerman. It was also a place where religious observance could be carried out freely.

The first year-round synagogue was formed in Keyport in 1912. Klermen explained there had been a thriving congregation before this, but it met in private homes. The first seasonal synagogue was Temple Beth Miriam, originally located on North Bath Avenue in Long Branch. It is now located on Lincoln Avenue in Elberon. The owners of the Imperial House and Commercial Hotel, along with Sigmund Eisner and the German-Jewish financial tycoons that lived in the area, were ardent supporters of this seaside synagogue.

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In his book, Our Crowd, Stephen Birmingham delves into this phenomenon and the reasons behind and triumphant outcome of this type of prejudice.

Rumson was the vacation choice of Jacob Shiff, the banker and philanthropist, whose investment house rivaled J.P. Morgan in dominating the nation’s financial markets. His home was located on the corner of Rumson Road and Buena Vista Avenue. His Rumson neighbors included his father-in-law Solomon Loeb and friend Isaac Seligman.

Another family, the Guggenheims, began as peddlers but soon realized that manufacturing their own goods was the way to make substantial profits and eventually began buying silver and copper mines. The name became internationally recognized and the family fortune grew as fast as its reputation. Murry Guggenheim’s home is now the site of Monmouth University’s library. German-Jewish Civil War hero and department store mogul Captain Joseph B. Greenhut owned the original “Shadow Lawn” mansion where President Woodrow Wilson accepted his party’s nomination to run for a second term. It is now the site of Monmouth University’s Wilson Hall. The original structure burned down in 1927.

Clarence Houseman was mayor of Long Branch from 1920 to 1924 and by that time the town was a surging seaside resort. There was so much money coming into town that a branch of the New York Stock Exchange was established at the Rothenberg Hotel and the surrounding area in West End became know as “Little Wall Street.” Doing business there were the Baruchs, the Lewishohns, the Oppenheims, Seligmans, Hirschhorns, Dreyfuses, Rothschilds and Bloomingdales, to name just a few.

Klermen went on to discuss the role German-Jews played in the establishment of Monmouth County’s social life. In 1914, Harry Content purchased the Hollywood Golf Club in Deal so that his Jewish friends, who were not welcome at nearby clubs, could enjoy the sport. Klermen noted that the Ocean Beach Club in Elberon was a favorite bathing club of German-Jews.

The clubs, philanthropic associations and homes established by this group helped sustain areas of the Jersey Shore when the area began declining due to the prohibition of gambling that began in the 1890s and lasted until 1946, when Monmouth Park re-opened.

As one vacation guide reported, “The gambling clubs and races have vanished now and Long Branch and Elberon would have gone to seed completely were it not for the prosperous American Jew and the kind of resort he builds. Newport has nothing to rival the summer mansions that line the main road.”

Not only did they build personal palaces, they established structures for the good of the entire community.

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