Newark’s remaining Jews hope to spark a connection with those who left
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
BY JEFF DIAMANT, Star-Ledger Staff
At its essence, Chanukah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that starts tonight, honors the storied re-consecration of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and a menorah said to have burned eight days on a one-day oil supply.
To a small group of Newark-area Jews, that is an apt metaphor for what’s going on this Chanukah at Newark’s fledgling Jewish Museum of New Jersey.
The museum, housed on the second floor of Congregation Ahavas Sholom, is hosting its first exhibit this Sunday: “L’chaim: Celebrating the Highlights of 20th Century Jewish Life in New Jersey.”
The exhibit focuses mostly on Newark’s once-thriving Jewish community. In the 1930s, the city was home to an estimated 70,000 Jews and 60 synagogues. Now, Newark’s only remaining old synagogue, Ahavas Sholom, which draws 25 people for most Saturday services, is hoping to rebuild a sense of Jewish community in the city.
“The Jewish community in Newark was the sixth largest in the United States,” said Max Herman, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University in Newark and vice president of the museum board. “It will never be what it was once, but we want to explain the fact that Jews once were an integral part of Newark’s history.
“We’re keeping a flame alive. We’re keeping the light of the Jewish community in Newark alive. There are folks who think there is no Jewish presence in Newark, that the light has effectively gone out. The synagogue and now the museum serve as a reminder that the light has not gone out, and that the light is being renewed, so to speak.”
The museum’s fundraisers are optimistic that, amid the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts, renewed interest in Newark is making its way to suburban Jews whose families grew up in the city.
“Jewish people who have Newark roots and have Newark connections feel very excited about what’s going on in Newark right now and with what we’re doing in particular,” said Phil Yourish, president of the museum’s board of trustees. “A lot of things are going on in Newark. … Certainly there’s the potential for people to move back into the city again, Jewish people.”
The exhibit features an array of pictures from four towns prominent in New Jersey’s Jewish history: Newark, Paterson, Vineland and Roosevelt.
Newark’s largest old synagogues, two of which were in buildings that still stand, are pictured in their stone glory: B’nai Jeshurun, which opened in 1858; Oheb Shalom, which opened in 1884; and B’nai Abraham, which opened in 1924. In the 1960s and 1970s, they moved to Short Hills, South Orange, and Livingston, respectively.
The exhibit includes an overview of Jewish immigration patterns to Newark. German Jews came in the 1840s for jobs in the shoe, hat, leather and beer industries. Polish Jews followed. More Eastern-Europeans came in greater numbers around the turn of the century, eventually helping form a Jewish middle class in the city’s Weequahic section.
Also featured is a picture of Newark’s only Jewish mayor, Meyer Ellenstein, a onetime boxer, throwing a phony punch at Max Baer, the heavyweight champion.
Paterson’s Jewish history includes the influx of Poles for jobs in the silk industry, their field of work in the Polish towns of Lodz and Bialystock. In Vineland, in Cumberland County, Jewish chicken farmers created a healthy industry. The exhibit includes an old copy of a periodical called “Der Yiddisher Farmer.” Roosevelt, created in Monmouth County in the 1930s as a New Deal initiative, was an agricultural cooperative dominated by urban Jewish garment workers.
The museum is only part of the effort to revive interest in Newark’s Jewish community. Led by Eric Freedman, president of Congregation Ahavas Sholom and co-founder of the museum, the synagogue in recent years has raised or secured nearly $160,000 of the $200,000 needed to build a playground at Newton Street School in the Central Ward.
“I’ve never placed my efforts on whether or not there will ever be a significant Jewish population in Newark again,” Freedman said. “I think it’s probably a little absurd to ever expect it to be like it was. The fact is that we’re still there, and our Jewish tenets actually require us to reach out into the community and proactively seek ways to improve the world.”
Museum In the Making
New Jersey Jewish culture to be showcased
Lois Goldrich, Jewish Standard, 07/22/05
According to Eric Freedman, a Jersey City resident and president of Newark’s Ahavas Sholom synagogue, Jews in New Jersey have “a story to tell.”
And what a story it is.
Consider, for example, the experience of Jewish farmers in New Jersey in the early part of the 20th century. While the agricultural efforts of East European Jewish immigrants to America were generally not successful, the thought of these ventures remains intriguing to historians (and urban Jews).
Or think about the original residents of Roosevelt, founded as Jersey Homesteads and created in central New Jersey as part of a government program to provide relief for garment workers during the Great Depression. Painter Ben Shahn created a fresco mural, in what is now the public school, to commemorate the community. The panels depict the history of the town, from the eastern European origins of its Jewish residents, to their arrival at Ellis Island, to the planning of their cooperative community.
Or, closer to home, take note of Temple Emanuel in Paterson, slated to move, piece by piece, to a synagogue in Franklin Lakes. Built with money donated by Jacob Fabian, Paterson philanthropist and theater-chain owner, this magnificent, intricately detailed structure was designed by a man whose previous experience lay in building the great movie houses of the 1920s.
Jews in New Jersey are represented in every field. Author Philip Roth hails from Newark, as does TV personality Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, born in Trenton and raised in Lawrenceville, recalls being the only Jewish kid in
his town when he was growing up. And then there’s poet Allen Ginsberg from Paterson.
Still — with the fourth largest Jewish population in the U.S. and numerous Jewish Historical Societies — New Jersey has not, up to now, had one place where the entire cultural heritage of its Jewish residents could be showcased. That will soon be remedied. The Jewish Museum of New Jersey, thanks to Freedman and Ahavas Sholom board member Joe Selzer, now has a space, an executive director, a mission statement, and a plan.
The idea was conceived by Selzer, who was inspired by a visit to the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach two years ago. Seeing the museum thrive in a restored synagogue, Seizer realized that a similar transformation could take place in Newark.
Freedman agreed, and sold the idea to the board of Ahavas Sholom. Constructed in 1923, the shul is the only Newark synagogue that is still active. Its second floor, however, has remained vacant for years. It used to house a Hebrew school. The museum will be housed in that 1500-
‘When I first came, I found an older congregation with a struggling minyan’ says Freedman. “Now we’re committed to the next hundred years.”
While the museum will display items of Judaica, says SeIzer, it will also feature both temporary and traveling exhibits. A timeline of Jewish history in New Jersey, to be housed at the museum, is being created by students in the Jewish Studies Program at Kean College. Classes and community outreach programs will also be offered, and it is envisioned that both Hebrew schools and public schools will bring children to visit. In addition, organizers hope the museum will serve as a resource for interfaith groups and other community organizations.
Freedman sees the museum as a “Newark institution” and points to the building’s mission statement, which speaks of fostering “a broader understanding and a mutual and religious backgrounds.”
“I think it can help refine what the synagogue wants to do on its own, pursuing tikkun olam in the neighborhood,” says Freedman, adding, ‘Through pride in our Judaism, we can celebrate everyone’s ethnicity at the same time.”
The museum is asking members of the public to provide both information and materials — whether documents, ritual items, oral histories, or photographs — to help realize its dream of showcasing Jewish culture.
Rabbi David Blumenfeld, the founding executive director of the New York Holocaust Memorial Commission, has lent the project his full support and has already met with the New Jersey Board of Rabbis to ask for its assistance in this effort. BIumenfeld, who has conducted the High Holiday overflow service at Winston Towers in Cliffside Park for decades, lives in New York but was originally from Newark.
Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and religious leader of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, is particularly sensitive to the rich history of the Jewish community and excited about the museum project. As his congregation prepares to leave Paterson, he is working to make a shidduch between museum organizers and a congregant with a large archive of Paterson literature and photographs. In addition, he says, his cantor, Jeffrey Weber, did his senior thesis on the choruses of Paterson and can provide information that will be valuable to the museum.
“So much of our efforts as a community have been to record our destruction,” he says. ‘This museum will record our pride, growth, and positive achievements for the next generation.”
Advocates of a Jewish museum in New Jersey are stepping up their efforts to make their dream a reality.
by Robert Wiener
NJJN Staff Writer – October 16, 2006
With thousands of dollars needed to convert the second floor above the sanctuary at Ahavas Sholom, the historic Conservative synagogue in Newark, to an exhibit space and no completion date in sight, the museum’s advisory board is conducting an invitation-only workshop on Oct. 29. The event is intended to enlist regional historical societies throughout the state, along with archivists, historic preservationists, and others involved with Jewish history, to help further the project.
Museum backers acknowledge that fund-raising for the museum project, first announced two years ago, has been slow. “We are anxious to move ahead but the climate has not been that good for us to raise the amount of money we need to make the improvements we’d like to see done,” said Bob Kaplan, a Caldwell resident and spokesperson for the museum.
On the agenda is a series of tasks that he is determined to have completed so that the synagogue’s second floor can become a viable space for the museum.
Eric Freedman of Jersey City, who is president of Ahavas Sholom and serves as vice chair of the museum board, has some additions to the to-do list. While consultants have told him “it’s a great space,” he estimates that the project “needs about $50,000 for electrical, heat, and air-conditioning work to really make the place right.” But, he said, the money should not stand in the way of creating a facility where “anybody in the state who has a Jewish story can use the museum as a conduit to tell the story.”
“Almost every state in the country has a Jewish museum,” agreed Kaplan. “Without one in New Jersey, we will lose the opportunity to have a place where our Jewish heritage is permanently on display and an opportunity to present programs and exhibits to a large Jewish community and do outreach to a large inner-city population.”
With subjects as diverse as the communities of chicken farmers in the Lakewood area and the rich immigrant life of early 20th-century Newark, the museum will offer a unique look at the memorabilia and artifacts of not one but many Jewish communities in the state, its backers said. A key mission of the museum, they added, would be educating Jews and non-Jews alike. “The mission of the synagogue is to extend ourselves to the rest of the community in Newark,” said Freedman. “We have a unique opportunity to bring about a dialogue. It’s part of our mission to help educate kids in the public schools of Newark. Our synagogue is a Newark institution. The museum could help us refine our overall mission.”
Kaplan also spoke of a goal to build bridges between, for example, Jewish students in the suburbs and African-American students in Newark. “If we were strictly market-oriented, I suppose we would be somewhere farther out in Essex County,” he added. “But we want to be in the inner city.” Backers of the museum include supporters of community Jewish historical societies, which currently mount museum-quality exhibits of their own.
“My opinion on institutions like this is ‘Let 1,000 flowers bloom,’” said Warren Grover, a member of the museum’s advisory board. “This one is in Newark, and that makes it all the more poignant,” he said, in reference to the city’s large, historic Jewish community, which came to a virtual end with the move of most of its members to the suburbs in the 1960s.
“We know it needs work. It is not climate-controlled,” said Kaplan. “We haven’t hired anyone to do a final design. We may have to do some window treatments to protect the exhibits from bright sunlight. We need new floor covering, we need new wall treatments, we need double-glazed windows.”
“We know it needs work. It is not climate-controlled,” said Kaplan. “We haven’t hired anyone to do a final design. We may have to do some window treatments to protect the exhibits from bright sunlight. We need new floor covering, we need new wall treatments, we need double-glazed windows.