WOODBINE — The Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage welcomed the first students into its newly expanded classroom space Thursday — a group of local fifth-graders learning about Black History Month.
Jane Stark, executive director of the museum, gave the children a lecture in the new center and then walked them into the attached former synagogue. There, she related their recent lesson to the plight of Russian Jewish immigrants who fled persecution to settle in southern New Jersey.
“When you learn about each other, that’s when you find out that we all have so much in common,” she said to the students from Woodbine Elementary School.
Galloway Township-based Richard Stockton College recently completed its $1 million, 2,825-square-foot addition to the 117-year-old former synagogue after taking ownership in December. Professional development courses will begin there later this month.
The addition is the latest step in Stockton’s expansion, along with a satellite campus in Hammonton that opened in January and a campus in Stafford Township that opened in September. The Woodbine center is Stockton's southernmost presence, and it is certainly the most unique because of the history to which it’s physically and figuratively connected.
“Capturing and making sure that heritage is preserved is one of the great benefits of education,” said Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. Several hundred Jews founded Woodbine in 1891 and built the synagogue by 1896. It operated until 1999, when it was restored as a museum and reopened in 2003.
Michael Azeez named the museum after his father, an entrepreneur and technological pioneer raised by Jewish immigrant parents who founded the Azeez Family Foundation. The family and foundation donated the museum along with $5 million to the college.
Since the college already operates the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at its main campus, combining the two under one institution should improve the offerings of both.
“One thing we're convinced of is that the founding families would be very pleased,” Saatkamp said.
A one-story addition on the rear of the museum, the new building has two classrooms and two offices. The brick facade makes it mesh seamlessly with the rest of the building on Washington Avenue in the small borough's downtown.
The facility has a dual function: providing a convenient location for students from this region, and expanding historical education opportunities provided by the museum and the college.
It is part of Stockton's Southern Regional Institute and Educational Technology Training Center, or SRI and ETTC, which has its main facility on Jimmie Leeds Road in Galloway but also provides training for professionals in their own school buildings.
"It's really just been wonderful to see how the college has just become a part of this region," said Patty Weeks, director of the SRI and ETTC, who lives just up the road in the Tuckahoe section of Upper Township.
Saatkamp called this spring the "soft opening" of the new center in Woodbine, and Weeks said she is essentially "test driving" the space to see what it could potentially accommodate in the future. Besides the currently scheduled classes for teachers, more are being planned this summer and fall, and it is to be determined whether they would be open to undergraduates, graduates or continuing education students.
The classrooms were only just finished earlier this week, but Stark decided they would be a good setting for the local elementary school students.
"This building was based on tolerance," she told them as they looked at black and white photos and historic local artifacts.
After the students walked back to the elementary school down the street, Stark pointed back toward the addition and was almost at a loss to describe how much she values it.
"Wow," she said. "This new building, it's like, 'Thank you, God.'"
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