MARGATE – In December, Stockton University conferred an honorary doctorate of humane letters to Rabbi Aaron Krauss of Margate, the religious leader at Beth El Synagogue since 1982, for his work in bringing a four-year college to Atlantic County.
Beth El, 500 N. Jerome Ave., will recognize Krauss at a brunch 12:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26.
Krauss, originally from Bridgeport, Conn., has lived in Margate since 1966 with his wife of 57 years, Mildred.
“I never dreamed I’d be here this long. There were other opportunities, but we never moved away from the Atlantic City area,” he said.
He attended Yeshiva University, Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“I was a senior in college trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had talked to students in the seminary, and that’s when I decided to go to school to become a rabbi,” he said.
He served as a Navy chaplain with the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa, and was in the reserves for nine years after active duty. After he left the military, he was appointed rabbi at Atlantic City’s Community Synagogue in 1962, during which time he founded Atlantic Human Resources, a group that served the poor. The group provided services in the Atlantic City area until a few years ago, Krauss said.
“I was new in the community, and a local rabbi got me involved when he couldn’t attend a meeting,” Krauss said about his early involvement.
“I heard complaints at the time from Horace Bryant, who was a leader in the African-American community. He was a good man, protesting a lack of jobs and opportunities for the city’s poor. At the time, Atlantic City had a lot of poverty. We worked to get money for seniors and afterschool programs for children as part of the anti-poverty program of the turbulent 1960s during President Johnson’s administration.”
During those early years Krauss heard a radio interview with Elizabeth Barstow Alton, a community activist who was interested in forming a college board. He decided to meet her and challenged her to pursue their joint vision of bringing a college to the shore. The two believed that a four-year college would offer opportunities for citizens and be a source of culture.
“We were exporting all our young people back then, and we believed the quality of the community would be enhanced with an academic institution,” Krauss said.
“I stopped by her house for a club luncheon and eventually we formed an advisory committee. We went to see Gov. Richard Hughes to discuss bringing a four-year college to South Jersey. He said that if we had a strong source of income, he would help.”
Thus began several years of promoting the idea, political wrangling, and raising the capital needed to bring a college to the area.
In her book, “The Stockton Story: The History of the Founding of Richard Stockton College” published by the Stockton Alumni Association in 1983, Alton credited Krauss with being a major influence in forming the college.
“Without his enthusiasm and gentle persuasion, I would not have become involved in the college movement. Since no one else in the community volunteered leadership, it is doubtful that Stockton State College would exist today, given the powerful political opposition that later developed.” she wrote in the book’s dedication.
“Not only did he motivate me, but was an active worker throughout the campaigns.”
Harvey Kesselman, the college's current and fifth president, was a graduate of the first graduating class.
“Rabbi Aaron Krauss has a long history with Stockton, including convincing New Jersey’s leaders that a four-year college was needed in South Jersey, which led to our founding,” he said.
The governor’s endorsement opened the door for contacts with powerful local politicians, including state Sen. Frank S. “Hap” Farley. The duo’s dreams of providing local residents with a world-class education came to fruition with the approval of a major capital construction bond in 1968 that earmarked $15 million for a state college in South Jersey.
Locals wanted to call it South Jersey State College, but the legislature named it Richard Stockton State College after New Jersey’s signer of the Declaration of Independence. Before the 1,600-acre campus in rural Galloway was built, classes were held at a temporary campus at the Mayflower Hotel in Atlantic City.
Kesselman, who attended classes in the aging hotel, said Krauss was instrumental in finding the land to build the Galloway campus, which broke ground in 1970 and held its first full year at the new campus in 1972. Krauss served on the college’s board of trustees and has been an adjunct professor of Jewish studies for more than 20 years, he said.
“Beyond that, he has shown an incredible commitment to inclusion, building bridges between clergy and citizens of the region and promoting harmony and equality for all,” Kesselman said.
Although he retired 12 years ago, Krauss, now in his 80s, returned as Beth El’s rabbi and is currently involved with Bridge of Faith, a group that recently held a unification meeting at the Margate synagogue on how to overcome anti-Semitism and hate of Muslims.
“I was contacted by a Muslim imam who wanted support from the Jewish community to help get Muslim children in Atlantic City schools excused absences on religious holidays,” Krauss said about the organization, which is chaired by Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz.
Today Stockton is a university with an enrollment hovering near 9,000. The Galloway campus is undergoing a $48 million expansion, and a new $178 million campus is being built in Atlantic City as part of the Gateway Project.
If not for the vision and persistence of Alton and Krauss, Atlantic County might still be exporting much of its talent to colleges in other parts of the state and around the country.