With the dedication of a new Torah scroll, Jewish residents of a onetime New Jersey agricultural settlement brought life back to the empty community center they hope to soon use as their synagogue.

The April 26 ceremony at the former Jewish Community Center in Toms River brought together men, woman and children of all ages to celebrate the completion of a Torah on behalf of the township’s Chabad-Lubavitch center. Commissioned by the extended Popack families in honor of their parents, Rabbi Shmuel Isaac and Miriam Popack of New York, the Torah’s completion was timed to coincide with Shmuel Isaac Popack’s 90th birthday.

“It is a great joy for us, and for the community at large, to take part in the monumental event of completing and welcoming the Torah,” said Rabbi Moshe Gourarie, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center, whose wife, Chanie Gourarie, is Popack’s granddaughter.

Gourarie noted that ceremony’s historic location has stood empty since last year, when Temple Beth Shalom left town to merge with another congregation. He’s hoping to acquire the space, which was founded almost a century ago as the Jewish Farmers Association and later renamed as the Jewish Community Center.

Founded in 2004, the Chabad House hosts weekly Shabbat services, children’s programs, adult-education classes and holiday celebrations.

Longtime residents remembered Toms River’s first Jewish community, which began in the 1920s after the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society encouraged Jewish families to relocate from New York City. The new residents had been employed as factory workers, but established themselves as chicken farmers in Ocean County in New Jersey’s midsection. At the time, the location was the leading producer of eggs in the United States.

Rabbi Moshe Gourarie, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Toms River, N.J., marches with the new Torah scroll.
Rabbi Moshe Gourarie, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Toms River, N.J., marches with the new Torah scroll.

“Chicken farming didn’t require expensive equipment, and the eggs demanded premium prices, because refrigeration didn’t exist then,” said Janice Gelzer, who has lived most of her 74 years in Toms River.

Gelzer’s uncle, Phillip Smith, was the first of her family to settle in Toms River in 1921, and the rest of her family soon followed. Smith participated in the construction of the very building where this week’s party was held.

“Everything of Jewish life in Toms River was centered there,” said Gelzer.

At the ceremony, which was complete with dancing, speeches and a celebratory meal, participants were invited to fill in the holy scroll’s last Hebrew letters with the assistance of Rabbi Moshe Klein, a Brooklyn-based ritual scribe. Gelzer’s twin grandsons were the first to be called.

“The Torah is the focal point of every synagogue,” said Gourarie. “This is a rare and unique event that unites our entire community, and connects us with generations bygone, all the way back to Mount Sinai.”