Freedman, president of the city’s last surviving synagogue, Ahavas Sholom, had spent the last half-decade organizing the synagogue and a coalition of other groups to raise $220,000 to build the playground.
Last week he dropped in and was relieved to see the playground once again bustling with children, this time first-graders on recess.
“My worst nightmare was, ‘Will the kids use it?'” Freedman said.
The effort to build the playground also helped resuscitate a moribund synagogue. This Rosh Hashanah, 160 people attended services, the most in more than a decade. The synagogue had so many attendees it had to purchase more high holy day prayer books.
“Through our community service, we have actually strengthened the congregation,” said Robert Steinbaum, Ahavas Sholom’s vice president and publisher of the New Jersey Law Journal.
It’s still a far cry from the early 1900s, when Ahavas Sholom was formed by merchants in the Broadway area who wanted to walk to services; or the 1940s, when Newark’s Jewish community had 60,000 members, three major synagogues and more than two dozen smaller ones.
But it was also unlike the dark days when Ahavas Sholom closed itself off from the world, trying to stave off what many thought was its inevitable closing.
Freedman, 50, who lives in Jersey City and owns the Elegant Stucco and Stone company, became president in 1998 and began preaching that community involvement and selflessness were the congregation’s keys to survival.
“What always drove me was the Jewish principle of repair the world and social justice. To me, building a playground that’s as good or better than what kids in the suburbs have is social justice,” Freedman said.
To the kids at Newton Street School, where almost all the 374 preschoolers through eighth-graders are eligible for free lunch, it’s just fun.
“Did you build this?” some of the first-graders asked Freedman as he watched them play on the monkey bars. “Thank you,” they squealed before mobbing him with high-fives.
“When we came out last (year) there was nothing here,” 7-year-old Nazeer Walker said as he lined up to go back into his classroom, still out of breath.
“They call it the park,” said Jackson, who grew up in the area. “This neighborhood here, we never had anything. I’m 36 years old and still saying that the closest park is Branch Brook.”
The playground, which formally opened Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, also has become a community oasis. Green Acres, which provided a $100,000 matching grant for the project, specifies the playground remain open after school hours. Parents are beginning to bring their kids to play, and there’s hope the playground will help draw more parents into community involvement.
“That’s what we’ve been missing. I’m hoping our community will see other communities getting involved here and take ownership,” Carlo said.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, School Superintendent Clifford Janey called the playground a “call to action” and an example of how to “turn goodwill into results.”
Freedman was successful in securing grants from a variety of sources, from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the Independence Community Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to a young girl at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair Church, who raised $2,000.
“Eric spent years putting together the funding package, writing grants, knocking on doors, writing letters, making calls and meeting with countless people,” said Elisa Sananman, a member of Ahavas Sholom who helped write a grant request for the playground. “He said this is doable and it breathed a lot of life into this congregation.”
Even as kids climbed the treehouse last week Freedman wasn’t satisfied. The school district will add an ecological education component to the playground, and Freedman is working on raising the $15,000 needed to install basketball courts for the older children.
He’s also in the early phases of launching a second playground project at Sussex Avenue School. Isolated near Route 280, the school may need a recreation outlet even more than Newton Street School.
“I’m telling my congregation we need to build 18 playgrounds, and then we can say we accomplished something,” said Freedman. “These tenets we are trying to live by are not a one-time thing.”