Third cousins Bill and Bonnie Barnert don’t remember ever having met until last year, when they came together in New Jersey to plan a Barnert family reunion.
It’s not impossible that they had met earlier, of course. “I think we met as children, but I’m not sure,” Bill said. (Extended families can be like that.)
“When my mom passed, I put together a family email list so we could connect with each other,” Bill said. He’s a computer interface designer living in Cambridge, MA. Posting the list on a family webpage, he suggested that the now far-flung Barnert family have a reunion.
Until now, there had been “only one generation of reunions, my father and some cousins,” Bill said. The subsequent generation — his and Bonnie’s — have not yet come together. “That was part of the impetus for having another one,” he said.
Bonnie, who lives in Atlanta, responded positively to Bill’s suggestion, indicating her willingness to help organize the gathering. The two then surveyed family members about where they should meet.
Paterson won, hands down.
“We picked Paterson after polling the cousins from the Northeast, Southeast, California, and other locations,” Bill said. “The reunions I remember from my youth were in New Jersey, because that’s where the hosts were. There are only a few Barnerts left in New Jersey, but there is so much history there that people were willing to travel.”
Apparently, there is another advantage in coming to Paterson. Said Bonnie, “It may sound crazy, but I will admit that it’s a kick to be in places where everyone knows how to spell, and actually pronounce, my name.”
Fortunately, the cousins work well together. “Bill and I seemed to click in doing this kind of thing,” said Bonnie, the mother of two daughters, who does creative craft work, including scrapbooking and card-making. “That’s how I think, seeing what there is to see and what could be made of it,” she said. When she and Bill came here last August on their planning trip, she saw that it was “a natural fit.”
Interestingly, none of the Barnerts on Bill’s email list are direct descendants of Nathan, the larger-than-life figure who came to the United States in 1849, a poor child from Prussia, and established a lucrative silk mill in Paterson. Nathan Barnert won two terms as Paterson’s mayor, and he contributed much of his wealth to establish and support a wide range of charities. Bill learned only recently that Nathan and Miriam Barnert did not have children. (Bonnie seemed to recall reading that they had two children who did not survive, but that could not be verified.)
Among other ventures, Nathan Barnert founded Barnert Hospital (now Barnert Medical Center); Barnert Temple (originally B’nai Jeshurun in Paterson), now in Franklin Lakes; the Miriam Barnert Hebrew Free School, now closed; and the Daughters of Miriam Home for the Aged and Orphans — still very much alive, although the orphanage was phased out around 1948. Indeed, Nathan Barnert was so important to the city of Paterson that in 1925, the town honored the then-87-year-old philanthropist by erecting a bronze statue that still stands in City Hall Plaza.
Not surprisingly, said Bill — who traces his family lineage back to Nathan’s brother Boas — Nathan was “something of a legend” in the family. Bonnie — whose line goes back to Morris, Nathan’s other brother — also recalls hearing a good deal about her distinguished great-granduncle. Most of those family stories came from her father, Ellis, and her grandfather, Isadore.
They always went to Lake Hopatcong — which she called “the family’s place to go,” and where the stories were shared, Bonnie said. Still, she admitted, she was only a child at the time and she was not very interested in what she heard. “When one is young, one is typically interested in things other than genealogy. Now I am hungry for all that!”
The cousins have been doing research in preparation for the reunion. Bonnie learned that Nathan Barnert “came to the U.S. as a child and headed west as a merchant during the gold rush. He made enough to come back and start the silk industry in New Jersey.” Clearly, she was inspired. “How can we compete, much less even comprehend, the bravery and guts it would have taken to board a boat as a teenager, by yourself, and with only your wits to survive, and sail around a continent to the other side of your country in an attempt to feed your entrepreneurial spirit, earning money for your family in the process?”
Bill was inspired as well, and he has a certificate on his wall marking t Nathan Barnert’s installation as mayor of Paterson.
According to Bonnie, “some things kind of fell into place when we saw the Barnert Mill building” during the cousins’ trip to Paterson last year. “My father, uncle, and great uncle ended up in Jacksonville, FL, with a silk shop,” she said. She wonders now if there were “some kind of business connection. If they were doing what they had learned how to do.” Or perhaps, mused Bill, they might have been buying their product in Paterson and selling it in Florida.
When the cousins met here last year to scout locations and sites of interest, they found that not only is the Barnert name still widely known and respected, but there are many people willing and eager to help the family arrange its reunion program.
Bonnie said she has been “very surprised” by the northern New Jersey community’s warm reaction to the project. “It’s really shocking, how warm people are, and some said they are surprised to meet a ‘real Barnert,’” she said. “In the temple office, a secretary said she didn’t know that any were still alive.” Bill recalled that when his sister was a freshman at Brandeis, someone from New Jersey asked if she was one of “the” Barnerts. “She said, ‘I don’t know what that means,’” he reported.
Having the reunion in a place with such a strong historical link to the family is an appealing prospect. “It’s more fun than having it in someone’s backyard,” Bill said. He had visited Paterson several times when he was a kid, and he recalled that when Barnert Temple moved to Franklin Lakes, his parents, Alan and Libby — who were married there in 1954 — were part of the procession carrying the Torah scrolls from the old building to the new one. So going back now, “having not been very connected to Paterson for decades, it was really interesting to go back on a reconnaissance mission and see not only the Barnert buildings but Paterson itself, and Alexander Hamilton’s connection to it,” he said. Now, he added, he and Bonnie will turn around and show it off to other family members.
During the cousins’ scouting mission, they met with Jerry Nathan at the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey “and were amazed to see all the ‘Barnertobilia’ they had. A photo I took of Bonnie standing between the portraits of Nathan and Miriam Barnert became part of the invitation to the other Barnert cousins.”
“Jerry Nathans was very welcoming and informative about our family, and shared pictures and stories which I knew nothing about,” Bonnie said. “Then we were invited to the home of a wonderful woman, [Barnert Temple member] Cipora O. Schwartz, who authored ‘An American Jewish Odyssey — American Religious Freedom and the Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple.’ I also read ‘Images of America — Jews of Paterson,’ by David Wilson. And then to learn about Rabbi Elyse Frishman’s contribution as editor of the prayer book ‘Mishkan T’filah’ felt like a feather in Barnert’s cap.”
Bonnie also expressed gratitude to Barnert Temple’s executive director, Vicky Farhi, who took the cousins on a tour of the synagogue and has helped them plan the upcoming gathering. “I don’t know what we would have done without the knowledge that she was there with whatever we might need,” Bonnie said.
Do other people know that the Barnerts are coming? Yes, Bonnie said. “The word is apparently out! We have received communications from so many people connected with Paterson. For example, out of the blue I received a phone call from Nancy Garson, who introduced herself by sharing that she was a born-and-bred Patersonian whose family has extremely deep roots in Paterson. She had so much to offer, including contacts to further our planning of the reunion. Members of her family have been cantor, president, and sisterhood members of the Barnert Temple, and also president of Barnert Hospital.”
The reunion will be held over Columbus Day weekend. On Friday night, family members will attend services at Barnert Temple and then join the congregation for a potluck supper. A bus tour the next day will include a stop at the Barnert Medical Arts Complex, where “Douglas Barnert, who was closely involved with the hospital, will show us some items of interest, Nathan’s statue at City Hall, prior locations of Nathan’s home and the synagogue, property he owned (which housed my grandparents, great aunts, father, and uncles), Mount Nebo Cemetery, some real ‘Barnert Avenue’ streets, the Daughters of Miriam building, and the Paterson Great Falls, which enabled production in the Barnert Mill,” Bonnie said.
“Until I delve further into our family tree, Nathan Barnert is the oldest relative whose name I know,” Bonnie added. “I am proud to be able to look back, feeling honored that I am a member of a strong, respected family.”