Temple_WallOn 29 April, 1924, the congregation was incorporated under the name of Congregation B’nai Yisroel, the first congregation in this area. Ground was purchased on Lackawanna Place from the Casa Columbo and a contract signed to build the synagogue. The building was completed just before the High Holy Days in 1925, with 75 “heads of households” attending services with their families.

Following the establishment of B’nai Israel in Millburn, other congregations were established in Union, Livingston, Springfield and Summit. In 1937, the B’nai Israel purchased its first cemetery plots and in 1951 the daily minyan was established; a practice that continues to this day.

In 1942, Rabbi Melvin Keiffer became the first Rabbi at B’nai Israel. As he was called to service in World War II, Rabbi Max Gruenewald, a German refugee teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was appointed to replace him. This began a relationship of fifty years. Rabbi Gruenewald served as Rabbi until 1969 and then became emeritus. (Rabbi Gruenewald had been the rabbi of the Haupt Synagogue in Mannheim, Germany, when it was destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. In 1950, two stones from the Haupt Synagogue were retrieved and placed in the walls of the sanctuary.)

In 1954 the congregation moved from its original building on Lackawana Street (currently the library parking lot) to its present location on Millburn Avenue. A plaque now commemorates the synagogue’s original presence.

Motherwell in CBI LobbyIn 1950, ground was broken at CBI’s present location, for a structure designed by architect Percival Goodman. Congregation B’nai Israel was featured in Time Magazine when the building was completed. It was considered an outstanding example of modern religious architecture and the first to introduce abstract art. Adolph Gottlieb designed the Ark Curtain (the current curtain is a copy of the original which is on permanent exhibit in the Jewish Museum), Herbert Ferber designed the outside sculpture of the Burning Bush and Robert Motherwell created the Mural found in our lobby. These three pieces were the subject of a recent yearlong exhibit at the Jewish Museum.

In 1967, B’nai Israel was awarded three Solomon Schechter Awards from the United Synagogue of America for its Archives, bulletin and music programming. This began a tradition of awards that B’nai Israel has received from the United Synagogue. In the last decade the congregation has been earned multiple Schechter awards in education, special education, social action and liturgy. The last Solomon Schechter Award was presented to CBI in 2013 – as one of the three most effective Social Justice programs in the United States.

Rabbi Gruenewald retired as emeritus in 1969. His successor Rabbi Melvin Glatt was succeeded by Rabbi Victor Mirelman in 1975. That same year the Hedwig Gruenewald Nursery School opened its doors. The award-winning early education program continues to this day.

In 1980, B’nai Israel took its first steps toward becoming an egalitarian congregation with women given limited roles on Shabbat.

In 1988, with the departure of Rabbi Mirelman, the congregation was without a Rabbi for one year. In 1989, Rabbi Steven Bayar began his tenure at B’nai Israel. In that year the congregation became fully egalitarian on Shabbat. In 1992, Congregation B’nai Israel of Elizabeth closed its doors and affiliated with B’nai Israel of Millburn. In 1994, the configuration of the sanctuary was changed to its current “Bima in the center” of the sanctuary. Cantor Lorna Wallach joined B’nai Israel in 1998.

In 2011, a major renovation and expansion of the synagogue was completed, including a state-of-the art school wing housing the Hedwig Gruenewald Early Childhood Center and Blanche Bayar Religious School, an expanded Social Hall, catering-quality kitchen, intimate Chapel, warm Library and new Multi-Purpose Room.

Additional information on Congregation B’nai Israel:

“Max Gruenewald, 93, A Rabbinical Scholar”, New York Times, December 29, 1992.

“New Exhibition at the Jewish Museum Focuses on Abstract Art and Modern Synagogue Architecture”, The Jewish Museum website, March 1, 2010.

John Zeaman, “Jewish Museum exhibits modern art commissioned by Millburn congregation nearly 60 years ago”, The Star-Ledger, March 18, 2010.

Michael Z. Wise, “America’s Most Prolific Synagogue Architect,” The Forward, March 9, 2001.

Tablets of Moses, Jacob’s Ladder and Burning Bush, The Jewish Museum website, March 19, 2010.

Torah Ark Curtain, The Jewish Museum website, accessed March 19, 2010.

George James, Places of the Heart; Historic Houses of Worship, From Soaring Spires to Simple Quaker Meeting Houses, The New York Times, March 28, 1999.