The story of the Garton Road Shul begins in Russia. Czar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in 1881. The Russian government, in order to deflect peasant discontent and to defend itself against revolutionary criticism and attack, began increasing it accusations that Jews were responsible for the misfortunes of the nation. Soon thereafter, massacres, or pogroms (a Yiddish term) began throughout southern Russia and the area now known as Ukraine. In these riots, Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were ransacked and burned and may Jews were killed. In order to escape this devastation, tens of thousands of Jews fled Russia for other countries, many of them to the United States.Many of these Russian Jews were well educated and worked in Russia as lawyers, business managers and doctors. Leaving almost everything behind, these families arrived in New York to find overcrowded tenements and little to no available work. Many of these immigrants decided that they needed to return to their ancestral aspirations as farmers leading simple agrarian lives. Soon, colonies began to appear throughout the United States of Russian Jews working the land. Most of them were not successful, but in southern New Jersey these agricultural Jewish colonies flourished. One of the first was named Alliance and was located along the Maurice River in Salem County. Soon, others formed including Brotmanville, Six Points, Estellville, Hebron, Mizpah, Zion, Carmel, Rosenhayn, and Garton Road.
The colony known as Garton Road was named for Henry Garton, who ran a lumber business in the area. It was no coincidence that Garton Road and the other Jewish agricultural colonies of southern New Jersey were more successful than efforts in other parts of the country. Most of the communities in the area were located along the Jersey Central Railroad line, making it a convenient ride to Philadelphia and New York City, where produce could be sold and where wealthy established Jewish communities existed and could be approached for support. In addition, southern New Jersey is perfectly located between two large water bodies, the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, which provide a microclimate perfect for farming. It is no coincidence that today these same agricultural lands of Salem and Cumberland Counties are known as “The Garden Spot of the Garden State.”
Garton Road was established at first by only a few men in 1888, who began clearing the area and building simple two-room houses for their families. For religious services, the Garton Road residents would hike through the woods to the synagogue in Rosenhayn, about three miles away. The hike is very difficult for the older members of the community to make though, and in 1890 they formed their own congregation and began to collect funds to build their own shul. A “shul” is a small, typically one-room synagogue where religious services are held on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest and spiritual enrichment.
It is easy to miss the tiny wooden frame building surrounded by fields. It seems part of the landscape. The shul has a peaked roof and a prominent Mogen David, or Star of David, painted blue, above the door. As you enter the little shul an antique Torah curtain of European origin hangs in the small entrance hall. Wooden benches fill the main floor. Narrow steps lead to the women’s section upstairs. A curtain covers the balcony so the women were hidden from sight by the men seated below, which is an orthodox Jewish tradition. Today, the shul is cared for by the Ostroff family, who have watched over the little building for generations. It is opened for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and on special occasions.