For more than 160 years, Barnert Temple, New Jersey’s oldest congregation, has stood for progressive social values and instilled those values in each generation, said Cipora Schwartz, the author of a book on American religious freedom through the prism of Barnert’s long history.
In “An American Jewish Odyssey: American Religious Freedom and The Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple” (Ktav Publishing House), Schwartz documents the life of Cong. B’nai Jeshurum: The Barnert Memorial Temple, from its beginnings in 1847 in Paterson with a handful of families to its current location in Franklin Lakes with hundreds of congregants. What carried the synagogue through those years, Schwartz said, was its dedication to helping others.
“The scent of liberty and opportunity and living a righteous life that will help others is really what the book is about,” Schwartz, a resident of Ho-Ho-Kus, told this paper during a telephone interview this week.
Schwartz’s journey into Barnert’s past took her to the Judaica division of the New York Public Library, the New Jersey Historical Society, the Paterson public library, and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
It was at HUC-JIR where she discovered a ledger from the latter half of the 19th century that tracked synagogue expenditures such as the rabbi’s salary and coal for heat. She noticed that every month, some money from Barnert would be allocated to a poor person, family, or orphan.
During his two terms as mayor of Paterson, Nathan Barnert donated his salary to the poor, Schwartz said, and the congregation was following his example.
“It established a tone of being American and when Jews talk about tzedakah and giving and leaving the world better than you found it, that’s really what they concentrate on,” she said.
Tzedakah played a large role within the synagogue because its early congregants were still very much new to America, she said.
“It was founded by people who were very pragmatic and business-oriented and remembered very vividly the hardship and the discrimination that they had endured in the old country,” Schwartz continued.
Three individuals are the focus of their own chapters in the book: Nathan Barnert himself; Rabbi Max Raisin, who began a 25-year stint at Barnert in 1921 followed by seven years as rabbi emeritus; and Rabbi Martin Freedman, who led Barnert from 1957 until 1995 and played a role in the civil rights movement as one of the Freedom Riders. With their dedication to social causes, these early leaders laid the groundwork that eventually changed the national mood that allowed Barack Obama to become president, Schwartz said.
“All the things we’re debating and hoping for in this new great moment for the rebirth of America were things that Rabbi Raisin and Martin Freedman were doing,” she said. “Those three men, they dovetail into what’s happening at this very, very important moment in our history, or what we hope will be a new chapter in our nation’s life.”
Barnert’s leadership approached Schwartz, the author of “How to Run a School Board Campaign and Win” as well as of a number of articles and pamphlets, to write the history of the shul almost 10 years ago. The family of Schwartz’s husband, Philip, had been members of Barnert for almost 100 years. She accepted, she said, on the condition that she could use Barnert Temple as an example of broader American religious freedom..
Philip Schwartz became ill while his wife worked on the book and died 14 months ago, shortly after she finished but in time to see the finished product. Freedman also died soon after Schwartz finished the book.
“I was very anxious to get a couple copies to him and my husband,” she said.
Barnert Temple’s devotion to social justice is possible because of America’s tradition of religious acceptance, which dates back to George Washington, Schwartz said. She cited a letter the first president sent to Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island praising its diversity and declaring that bigotry has no place in America.
“There was no place in the world that had this kind of attitude,” she said. “He set the tone for what we see today.”
Those lessons, she continued, are not just for Jews but also for members of “every creed that came here to worship as free people,” she said.
Programs on Darfur, visiting soup kitchens, and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity are common at Barnert, where children cannot complete the bar/bat mitzvah process without taking on a year of community service, Schwartz said. The shul is “setting the stage for good citizenship” in its children, as it has done for decades, she said.
“This generation of children in the religious school is learning to be an ethically outward-looking generation of young people,” she said. “They are trained from the get-go to think outside of themselves. They know about Darfur by the time they are 6 years old.
“If they live that life, their children’s children will live that life,” she said.
The profits from the book – which sells for $40 – will be divided between maintaining Barnert’s archives and the archives of the city of Paterson.