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Einstein helped form this N.J. town where most houses look the same logo 8/16/2021 Steve Strunsky,
a graffiti covered wall: The original doors of the borough's only school, depicting farm and factory life in relief, now on display inside the school. © Patti Sapone The original doors of the borough's only school, depicting farm and factory life in relief, now on display inside the school.

This story was originally published in 2020.

Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program to break out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a federal panel that included Albert Einstein created what were essentially 100 American kibbutzim.

These collective farm and industrial communities — the singular is kibutz, and the phenomenon is commonly associated with Israel — were set down in rural areas around the United States. They had a dual purpose: spurring economic growth and relocating Jewish garment workers from congested cities to what the panel’s chairman, Benjamin Brown, referred to as “the free and healthy atmosphere of rural life.”

a house that has a sign on the side of a building: A synagogue built in 1956 is Roosevelt's only house of worship. © Patti Sapone A synagogue built in 1956 is Roosevelt's only house of worship.

Among the communities created by the panel, known as the Provisional Commission for Jewish Farm Settlements, was a 1,200-acre spread in western Monmouth County originally called Jersey Homesteads, which in 1937 was incorporated into a municipality of the same name on land formerly in Millstone Township.

The agrarian borough would officially change its name to Roosevelt in 1945 following the death of the 32nd president, who is honored with a large bust on a pedestal outside the borough’s one school.

text: The entire borough of Roosevelt is on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places. © Patti Sapone The entire borough of Roosevelt is on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places.

Roosevelt’s original residents essentially bought into the community with an investment of $500, which got them a house on a half-acre lot. They did not own it, but instead rented it from the government for a modest sum.

Ideally, residents would farm the communal land on what was partly a subsistence basis to feed themselves, and to generate a surplus harvest for sale.

In addition to the farm, a clothing factory was built, where the workers would employ the skills they had taken with them from the city.

But according to a 1994 thesis by Rutgers graduate student Jason H. Cohen, “From Utopia to Suburbia: the Architecture and Planning of Roosevelt, New Jersey,” both the farm and the factory collectives had failed before 1940 thanks to various factors: a labor shortage at the factory because it was constructed prior to many houses being built; disagreements over whether the farm should aim to feed cooperative families as cheaply as possible or to produce cash crops; and a lack of interest among needle workers in the kind of pay and labor required for the farm.

a bus parked in front of a house: One of the many Bauhaus-influenced houses in Roosevelt designed by architects Alfred Kastner and Louis Kahn. © Patti Sapone One of the many Bauhaus-influenced houses in Roosevelt designed by architects Alfred Kastner and Louis Kahn.

Eventually, private interests took over the factory to make hats, the government auctioned off the farm implements, and the houses were sold for about $4,000 each to the workers who had rented them or to outsiders who had never participated in the cooperative.

The Ben Shahn Mural at the Roosevelt Public School. © Patti Sapone/NJ Advance Media for The Ben Shahn Mural at the Roosevelt Public School.

And so Roosevelt became a more conventional community of private property owners, employed like any others in a broader economy that by then was picking up steam thanks to the New Deal, World War II, or both.

The factory building still stands, but is now an industrial center with spaces leased to a variety of private businesses, including a furniture maker and artist studios.

a large lawn in front of a house: The exterior of Robin Gould and Allan Mallach's house. © Patti Sapone The exterior of Robin Gould and Allan Mallach's house.

Together with its founding as a collective, Roosevelt is further distinguished by its uniquely uniform housing.

It includes the community’s original 200 single-family homes designed in a minimalist, Bauhaus-inspired style, designed by German architect Alfred Kastner and his assistant Louis Kahn.

They were mainly one-story structures intended to heat cheaply, and were constructed with modern, inexpensive materials, including cinder blocks for exterior and interior walls.

All but two of the original houses still exist, though nearly all of them have been expanded, re-sided or otherwise altered, and only seven remain that are close to their original appearance, said Mayor Peggy Malkin.

A number of split-level houses and even five geodesic domes were later built along the borough’s winding, wooded roads, further diversifying the borough’s Bauhaus aesthetic.

But what has survived in large part, even after the dismantling of the farm and factory collectives and the gradual dilution of the borough’s original aesthetic and religious character, is the spirit of community that binds residents regardless of their faith or exterior siding, said Malkin.

“I think we still have a really strong community, the spirit and caring here,” said Malkin, whose words would no doubt be echoed by the mayor of any community. “People in Roosevelt genuinely care about each other.”

It’s a spirit Malkin said is evident in behaviors and attitudes ranging from the annual July 4 picnic where everyone is invited, residents or not, for free food and music, to the sixth grade graduation ceremony in the school’s outdoor amphitheater near FDR’s bust.

“Whether you have a child graduating, whether you known anyone, it’s just a whole town event,” Malkin said.

There is the annual two-day Roosevelt Arts Project music festival, or RAP, held every May featuring string bands.

And there is the time-honored local tradition of friends and neighbors banding together to care for someone sick or disabled.

“They’ll set up a calendar,” Malkin said. “Who’s going to make dinner on this night; who’s going to make dinner on that night; who’s going to drive them to the doctor; who’s going to drive the kids to school.”

Even the painful and divisive decision recently to disband the borough’s long-standing volunteer fire company in favor of a contract with a professional department underscored how passionately members want to serve the community, said Malkin, who supported disbanding the department for economic reasons.

The Roosevelt Borough Bulletin, a monthly online newsletter, is staffed by volunteers and funded by donations.

Robin Gould and Alan Mallach have lived in their Roosevelt house since 1983, when they moved to the borough from Atlantic County.

Gould, a retired psychiatric social worker, and Mallach, a concert pianist who also writes on urban affairs, were drawn to Roosevelt in part because of its modern aesthetic.

But Mallach acknowledged that the house is not practical or particularly comfortable, and was even less so before an expansion and modification to the rear of the house that created an office and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the couple’s wooded back yard.

“These houses, from a functional standpoint, don’t work very well,” Mallach said. “They lack storage, they lack insulation. They’re hot in the summer, they’re cold in the winter. The heating system is wildly inefficient.”

Of the architects, he added, “They were very determined to make a break with the traditional way of how houses looked: concrete blocks were modern, flat roofs were modern. So these houses were an ideological statement, and they forgot that over hundreds of years people figured out how to build houses that were comfortable to live in.”

Even so, Mallach said, “I really like the clean lines. The aesthetic quality of the house is really quite wonderful.”

In recognition of Roosevelt’s distinct history, the entire borough is on both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

Roosevelt’s 1983 listing by the National Park Service sites its significance to the history of community planning and development, art, politics, government, architecture and social history, with specific references to architect Alfred Kastner and the borough’s well-known muralist Ben Shahn.

The needle work of Roosevelt’s early settlers is commemorated in a large mural in the elementary school by the social realist painter and photographer Ben Shahn, who made the borough his home.

Shahn, who completed the Roosevelt in 1938, was a Lithuanian native who immigrated to the United States with his family, becoming a protege of Diego Rivera, and working on several New Deal-era public projects.

In one allegorical scene in the Roosevelt mural, Shahn depicted his own mother and fellow Jewish immigrant Albert Einstein leading other new arrivals over a gangway onto Ellis Island.

Other works by Shahn adorn the walls of Albert Hepner’s house.

Hepner, who was a friend and neighbor of Shahn’s, is a Belgian Jew and Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the United States in 1950, and 11 years later moved to Roosevelt from the Bronx with his growing family.

“We needed larger quarters and my wife had family here, and we liked the fact that the town seemed to be a community-minded town, a liberal town,” said Hepner, 83, who after a career in business is now an adjunct professor of English as a second language at Kean University in Union.

Hepner’s wife, Freda, died in 2007, and their three children have all moved away. But Hepner has no plans to leave the rural tranquility of Roosevelt. He thinks that hiding from the Nazis as a child in Brussels instilled in him an appreciation for solitude — and for quiet.

“I’ve been above the arctic circle, and I’ve gone to the most southern point in Chile,” Hepner reflected. “I’ve never found the quiet that I’ve found here.”

Hepner is not alone in his appreciation for Roosevelt’s peace and tranquility.

Those and the borough’s other communal values were among the factors that ranked it the state’s best place to live in 2006, under New Jersey Monthly magazine’s annual survey.

“It hasn’t had any new development,” the magazine’s editor, David Chmiel, said at the time. “It is surrounded by open space and it’s refreshing that its residents stay true to certain principles.”

Roosevelt’s religious heritage is evident at its only cemetery, where the bulk of the headstones are inscribed in Hebrew.

But the population has shifted in the decades since the borough’s founding.

Of the 880 people of various religious and ethnic persuasions who live now in Roosevelt, somewhere around 15 to 18 percent are Jewish, Malkin said.

“People move in, people move out,” said borough historian and Bulletin editor Michael Ticktin, 73, whose three children no longer live in town.

Even so, Roosevelt’s sole house of worship is a synagogue built in 1956, a contemporary structure erected two decades after the community’s founding. Until then, services had been held largely in private homes.

Malkin, who is Jewish but not a member of the synagogue, said the borough’s more devout gentiles mainly attend services at churches in nearby Heightstown or East Windsor.

As unique as Roosevelt may be, it faces some of the same stresses as other communities in Monmouth County and across the state, and for the same reason: money.

It was money that drove the decision not to build a new firehouse and pay for the training that the volunteer department would need under state rules to continue operating.

And it’s money that now threatens the future of the borough’s central institution, Roosevelt Public School, a K-6 facility — also designed by Kastner and Kahn in the Bauhaus style — that educates a total of 80 students on an annual budget of $2.5 million.

Only about 50 of those students actually live in Roosevelt, with the other 30 attracted from surrounding towns by the school’s academic excellence and small enrollment, said Mary Robinson Cohen, who serves as both superintendent of the Roosevelt Public School District and principal of its one school.

Like many other districts, Roosevelt is faced with a state aid cut to be phased in over the next three years under a new school funding formula implemented by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

For Roosevelt, Cohen said the new formula means an aid cut of $430,000 by the 2022-23 school year, which could demand dramatic measures including regionalizing with a neighbor, providing one is willing; converting to a charter school; or closing the school and sending students to one out of town.

The thought of closing the school is painful to Malkin and others, and frustrating for Cohen, who said Roosevelt was recently recognized by Monmouth’s freeholders for having the highest PARCC standardized test scores in the county.

“We have this incredible history, this incredible academic excellence, and yet we face possible closure on account of this legislation that was enacted,” said Cohen, noting that the funding formula favors districts with increasing enrollments.

“I think part of the problem with Roosevelt is that it falls under the category of schools that aren’t growing. And it was started as a utopian community with a set number of houses that was not intended to grow.”

This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future — all the unusual things that make our great state what is it. Got a story to pitch? Email it to

Steve Strunsky may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find on Facebook.

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