A son's tribute to the heritage of a lost village
By Jacqueline L. Urgo
Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted on Sun, Dec. 07, 2003
WOODBINE, N.J. - It was his father's memories of the struggles and successes of America's first self-governing Jewish settlement that led Michael Azeez to create a lasting tribute to that legacy.

Carved out of the South Jersey wilderness in 1896, the Brotherhood Synagogue served as the center of the community for 600 Jewish families who settled in rural Cape May County after fleeing religious persecution in Russia.

A century later the community had dwindled, and after Rosh Hashanah services in September 1999, the Ner Tamid - eternal flame - was extinguished and the synagogue's board of directors believed, sadly, that they had closed the doors forever. The building was put up for sale.

To honor his father, Azeez has rescued the synagogue. The 46-year-old Strathmere resident has spent about $1 million - much of it his own money - to renovate the house of worship and create a museum in the basement where Azeez and his father took Hebrew lessons. The basement is now known as the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage.

The restored synagogue and museum have been open since June. There are storyboards replete with sepia-toned photographs, and oral-history recordings telling the history of Woodbine. Last week, the museum dedicated a new permanent exhibit, titled "A Collective Memory Wall."

The exhibit, created by Philadelphia artist Steven Tucker, allows visitors to submit mementos and written accounts of events in the Woodbine area, past and present, and preserve them in the sculpture's sealed glass tubes.

"The idea of this museum, and of this memory wall, is that it inspires people to stop and think about 'how did my grandfather get over here, and what was it like when he arrived?' " Azeez said. "So it's not just the story of Jewish immigration, but it is a story about America and how a country was created."

In recent years, synagogue members buried in a neighboring cemetery far outnumbered the living congregants, whose descendants had grown up and moved to communities such as Cherry Hill, Margate and Philadelphia's Main Line. In this rural, culturally diverse town of 2,700 people, few Jewish families remain.

Currently there is no rabbi or active congregation at the synagogue. It is governed by a board of directors, which permits services to be held there several times a year. It was before this board in 1999 that Michael Azeez presented a plan to save the synagogue and its heritage.

The heritage was that of German railroad tycoon and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who wanted to create a refuge and haven for Jews fleeing Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He set up a $2.4 million fund - $47.8 million in today's dollars - to relocate Jewish settlers in the United States and South America. Among its endeavors, the fund paid $37,500 to buy 5,300 acres of what was then part of Dennis Township to try out this "agricultural experiment" that de Hirsch envisioned.

The 30 acres of land allotted to each new immigrant to farm was in an area with nothing but miles and miles of scrub pine and oak wilderness that had to be cleared before it could be plowed.

But in spite of hardships, the community thrived. And by 1902, founding fathers had petitioned the State of New Jersey to allow them to annex the town as a separate municipality from Dennis Township.

A year later their wish was granted, and the town of Woodbine was born. With about 1,400 residents, 52 farms and seven factories, Woodbine became what historian Joseph Brandes termed "a unique training ground for freedom" and America's first self-governed Jewish community.

In just 12 years, the villagers had progressed from bewildered immigrants to active participants in democracy, historians say.

Woodbine thrived until well into the mid-20th century, when descendants of the original farmers began seeking greener pastures, moving away in droves from the eight-square-mile borough.

Buildings and homes began to fall into disrepair, including the sprawling campus of what had been the Woodbine Agricultural School, the nation's first secondary school for the study of agriculture. The property was later taken over by the state and now is the Woodbine Developmental Center, serving the developmentally disabled.

Among the forgotten places was the Brotherhood Synagogue, one of the oldest in the state.

"We really didn't know what we were going to do with the building; we had no congregation left," said Herman Rosenfeld, 90, a lifelong Woodbine resident. Rosenfeld, a member of Brotherhood's board of directors, is a direct descendant of an early settler who helped build the synagogue, brick by brick. "But then Michael came along with his plans, and we decided there could be no better use for the building. We took it off the market immediately."

With the help of experts from the Philadelphia Jewish Archives and the Center City-based exhibit design firm Dommert/Phillips, Azeez created the museum in his father's honor.

Sidney "Sam" Azeez was a highly successful entrepreneur until his death a year ago. Growing up in Woodbine, with its strong ties to Jewish history, filled Azeez with a burning desire to achieve great things, his son said.

After graduating from college with a degree in electrical engineering and physics, Sam Azeez, through his company Ultronics, in 1965 invented the first real-time computer-quotation system, revolutionizing stock markets around the globe. He also pursued careers in investment banking and real estate.

Sam Azeez was also involved in several start-up businesses, including the American Cellular Network (Amcel), Unitel Inc. and Earthlink Inc.

Michael Azeez, following in his father's footsteps, has become an entrepreneur involved in taking wireless communication to the region.

"Growing up here had a big impact on my father," Michael Azeez said last week just before the dedication of the new memory wall. "I want Woodbine to continue to be a place that inspires the next generation to do great things."

To that end, the museum is involved in helping teachers from Woodbine Elementary School develop curriculums involving the immigration story told by the project.

So it was fitting that at last week's dedication, eighth grader Lillian Santiago was among the first to contribute to memories to be preserved in the new exhibit.

Santiago, saying that she was thankful for the help of philanthropic endeavors such as a contribution made recently by the Philadelphia 76ers to help rebuild her school's library and media center, placed a Sixers bookmark in one of the 1,000 hand-sandblasted tubes that make up the wall.

"Learning to remember is one of the most important things we can be taught," Santiago said.