From Jewtown to Suburbia


The history of the Jewish community of Trenton reflects patterns seen elsewhere in the United States. Immigrants from Germany who arrived in the 1850s and 1860s organized the first communal institutions—a burial association and a synagogue. Eastern European Jews followed, reaching Trenton in the 1880s and continuing to come steadily until immigration was restricted in the 1920s. In 1905 roughly 1500 Jews lived in Trenton; by the mid-1920s the Jewish community had doubled. In those decades, the Jewish community grew at more than twice the rate of the city’s overall population.

As Trenton’s Jewish population grew, so did the organizational complexity of the community. In 1910 a few of the Jewish clubs in Trenton united to form a Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and within a few years Trenton’s young Jewish women built a similar organization for themselves. In 1917 the YM/YWHA purchased a three-story building for $25,000. When renovations were completed, the facility was hailed as one of the best Jewish Y’s in the country. It was the first in New Jersey, and it boasted the only indoor swimming pool in Trenton. Over the following decades, the Y successfully served the social, cultural, and physical needs of the Jewish community of Trenton.

In its early years most of Trenton’s Jews lived not far from the Y, in an area known locally as “Jew Town.” But as the second generation left behind the trades and occupations of the first, the children departed from their parents’ neighborhoods too. American Jews, who are known for their tendency to move away from their parents, were among the earliest of the twentieth-century immigrant groups to abandon cities for nearby suburbs. The Jews of Trenton were no exception.

In the 1940s the leadership of the Trenton Y began to face the growing obsolescence of its building; and, similar to Jewish community leaders in other cities, they also noticed that the membership base of their organization was scattering. By the late 1940s, most of the approximately 700 Jewish families in the community no longer lived near the Y. For many this geographic dispersion threatened the continuity of Jewish communal life. When most Jews lived near one another in largely Jewish neighborhoods, their Jewish lives were centered. As they moved to other neighborhoods and nearby suburbs, however, many Jews began to feel the need for organizations to re-create the sense of belonging one used to get by simply being in the old neighborhood. A Jewish Community Center movement arose to meet this need by providing sports, culture, companionship, and identification.

Reflecting this trend, the Trenton YM/YWHA renamed itself the Jewish Community Center of Trenton in 1949. After prolonged debate and a false start, in 1954 the Jewish Community Center acquired nearly forty acres of land in Ewing Township, just over the Trenton border, for a suburban community center campus. It launched a fundraising drive later the same year, and hired Louis I. Kahn the next.