Barnert Temple looks forward after 175 years
This would be rude if we were to say it about a person — it shouldn’t be, but let’s be realistic. It is.
Barnert Temple is old.
But luckily, Barnert is a synagogue, so saying that it’s 175 years old — the oldest in New Jersey, in fact — is high praise for an extraordinary accomplishment.
The Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple, to give it its formal name, as so few do, is in Franklin Lakes now, right off Route 208 but nonetheless set in the woods. But it began its life in Paterson, as Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, in 1847.
Paterson was a growing, bustling city then; Alexander Hamilton, stirrred by its Great Falls, had envisioned it as the nation’s leading industrial hub, as Cipora O. Schwartz, a historian and Barnert Temple member, documents in her 2007 book, “An American Jewish Odyssey.” It worked with cotton and then, more lastingly, with silk; it attracted craftspeople who were trained in that trade. Some of them were Jewish.
By 1847 — before the Civil War, when the United States still was young, immigrating here was a challenge and an adventure, and its founding sin, slavery, still was an ongoing, legal institution, at least in some states — there already were a few synagogue communities in existence. Two opened in the 17th century. Congregation Shearith Israel was founded in 1654, in lower Manhattan; it flourishes today, uptown on Central Park West, and also is known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, opened in 1658. (In 1958, it was restored by a Barnert member, Ms. Schwartz said.)
Okay. What about Barnert?
In 1827, Ms. Schwartz tells us, the number of Jews in Paterson was so small that when the Rev. Samuel Fisher of the city’s First Presbyterian Church compiled a religious census he did not have a category for Jews — Hebrews, as they would have been called, politely, then — but instead listed just one Jew in the miscellaneous category called “Infidels.” But by 1847, there were enough Jews in town that they came together to form a community.
As was the case with so many synagogues, one of the most pressing needs its members felt was for a cemetery. Soon, they bought a small plot in what later would become Clifton.
At first, the B’nai Jeshurun community was small. Members gathered for services — which were Orthodox — in each other’s homes; after about 10 years, they started renting space. In 1860, B’nai Jeshurun bought its first building. (That building, on Mulberry Street, was unprepossessing, although the photo is haunting.)
In the 1860s, large numbers of German Jewish silk workers started moving to Paterson; in 1867 the community bought land for a cemetery, which they called Mount Nebo.
In 1875, Nathan Barnert’s name appeared in the synagogue’s directory for the first time. He became its most prominent supporter. And in 1880, B’nai Jeshurun made a monumental change — it went from Orthodox to becoming an early adopter of Reform Judaism. (Soon, a breakaway Orthodox congregation, B’nai Israel, came to life.)
Nathan Barnert, the German-born industrialist and philanthropist, was a huge figure not only in his synagogue’s life, but in his adopted city’s. His biography, as Ms. Schwartz sketches it, is fascinating, like a 19th-century boy’s dream adventure. He was born in 1838 and came to New York with his parents when he was 11. He took a steamship to Nicaragua and went to California during the gold rush — Ms. Schwartz tells us that he was too young to stake a claim, so he supported himself working in a general store. Then, she wrote, he decided that gold mining was too risky, so he became a peddler, selling dry goods to the miners and earning more money than they did.
In 1858, when he was 20, his western adventures behind him, he moved to Paterson and found diverse ways to make money; he had a tailoring business and invested in both real estate and textile mills. He thrived, and so did the city. When the Civil War hit, both he and Paterson slowed down, but soon he got a contract with the Union Army. He clothed the soldiers; in the process he also provided jobs to Patersonians and energy to its industry.
Both Nathan Barnert and his wife, Miriam Phillips Barnert, devoted themselves — Miriam full-time, Nathan even more after he retired — to what was called, with some accuracy, good works. By the time they died, the city they loved had benefitted enormously from them.
In 1894, the Barnerts were honored by the congregation they had supported for decades when it named its monumental new building on Straight Street after them.
History went along — Barnert Temple’s is too complex for a newspaper story — with the congregation involved in social justice work.
Its leader, Rabbi Martin Freedman, was a Freedom Rider, part of the first interfaith clergy Freedom Ride; that was just one of his many extraordinary actions. “Not everyone in the congregation loved it, but he did it, because he felt compelled to do it,” Rachel Steiner, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, said.
He also was beloved as a pastor and leader, she added.
Meanwhile, in 1959, the community, which had outgrown its dated palace, moved to a more modern, more suburban-looking building on Derrom Avenue in Paterson.
But Barnert was not immune from history, or from the forces that propelled young Jewish families from old industrial cities into the surrounding suburbs. Membership levels slipped, and it became evident that if the synagogue was to survive, it had to move.
The synagogue’s leaders decided where to go “by sitting with a big map of the area, with big pushpins” and the addresses of people who had moved away, Rabbi Steiner, said, and in 1982 — its 135th year — the community voted to go to Franklin Lakes.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but this is the place that made the most sense,” Rabbi Steiner said.
Ground was broken in 1986, and the congregation moved to Franklin Lakes the next year, marching on foot, carrying their sifrei Torah from their old home to the new one.
“At the groundbreaking ceremony, they put a genizah” — a place where objects that are no longer kosher for use, but too inherently sanctified to be thrown out, are kept, sometimes until they can be buried, sometimes forever — “beneath where the ark would be built,” Rabbi Steiner said. “Now the ark stands on top of the genizah. That’s part of how they consecrated this place, and connected it to every other place that had been Barnert.”
Before the move, there was a year of celebration and remembrance, Ms. Schwartz wrote. And at a final revue — an art form at which the community excelled — they remembered Nathan Barnert, by evoking Guys and Dolls’ Nathan Detroit:
“So it’s good old reliable Nathan, Nathan, Nathan, Nathan Barnert
“If the goal we are seeking I have to describe,
“It’s a big brick building with a rabbi inside
“In a temple provided by Nathan,
“Learned men will meet and debate,
“In the oldest established permanent congregation in the state.”
In 1995, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who had been ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1981 and had been the rabbi of the Reform Temple in Suffern for 14 years, came to Barnert. She was formidably credentialed as a writer and editor as well as a pulpit rabbi. She also was Barnert’s first woman rabbi.
Barnert changed during her tenure, from classical Reform to a less formal style; Rabbi Steiner has maintained and accelerated that change. Rabbi Steiner came to Barnert straight out of rabbinical school, and she worked with and learned from Rabbi Frishman for seven years. “She was my mentor,” she said. Rabbi Frishman retired in 2017, and soon Rabbi Steiner became Barnert’s senior rabbi.
The clergy team is all women now — Rabbi Eliza Scheffler is the assistant rabbi, and Marina Voronina is the cantorial soloist.
One of the many benefits of being such an old synagogue — although with many young families and a thriving preschool — is its multigenerationality. “We have a number of people who are third and fourth generation,” Rabbi Steiner said. “There is a decent handful of adults raising children here now who became bar or bat mitzvah with Rabbi Frishman, or with Rabbi Freedman.
“There’s a deep connection with history, with what it means to be part of a congregation this old,” she continued. “It’s not just a date or a graphic on a letterhead.
“I think that what it really means to be part of a congregation celebrating its 175th anniversary is that there is no one way to do things. A deep respect for where we have been and for those who helped us survive and adapt and change is built into the DNA of the congregation. And so is an excitement about how the tradition will help us shape meaningful, connected, impactful Jewish life today and tomorrow.
“That inherently means that we are changing and moving. If we hadn’t changed and moved, we wouldn’t be here.”
The congregation now is at its largest since she first arrived there, Rabbi Steiner said. “I think that mostly people bring people to us. It’s not through a creative marketing campaign. It’s done authentically and with love by the people who make their homes here, and find that it is a place worth coming to, a place where you can form lively, meaningful Jewish lives.
“We grew through the pandemic. Now, we have more than 245 kids in our religious school — we call it the Jewish Journey Project, or JJP. It’s pretty flexible but it has deep integrity.” Hebrew school shouldn’t be an experience that kids resist or resent, but too often it has been; she said. But kids actively enjoy JJP.
Barnert Temple is a regional congregation, Rabbi Steiner said; it draws from somewhere between 10 and 15 towns and villages. “Jewish life is fairly dispersed here, and many Jews around here feel like they’re the only Jewish family on their block, and maybe in their school. It’s not densely Jewish, the way many of us think the suburbs are going to be.
“Each town has its own personality,” she continued. “One of the things that’s lovely about Barnert is that it’s so diverse, with people coming from all these places. One of the great things about it is that the kids in JJP get to meet kids from other schools in other towns. One of the great gifts of Barnert is getting us out of own little silos.
“And we have many different kinds of people. We have a FedEx driver, a restaurant manager, a hospital president, teachers, bankers, businesspeople, and a lot of stay-at-home parents.
“We have Jewish families who have one Jewish parent. You don’t have to have two Jewish parents, but you have to raise Jewish kids, even if they celebrate other holidays with their parents. So they’re not interfaith families; they’re Jewish families with one non-Jewish parent.
“We really have everyone.”
Rabbi Steiner described her own path to the pulpit. She was born and grew up in Manhattan; her family belonged to Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side. “I wanted to be a rabbi at least since high school,” at Fieldston in Riverdale, she said. Even before that, “I grew up singing in the children’s choir at Rodeph with my cantor.” That was Ephraim Baran, “who was an additional grandfather to me,” she said; he died last year. “That was my first connection to Jewish love.
“I don’t say that lightly. My rabbinate has come to be shaped by my genuine love. And that’s what I want people to know about Jewish tradition. I want them to know about the love.
“And it’s not floofy love,” she added. It’s not sentimental, it’s not treacly, it’s not Hallmark-y. It’s real.
Back to her adolescence. “I did all the things,” Rabbi Steiner said. “I was president of my temple youth group. A lot of rabbinical students taught at the synagogue, so I had access to the best teachers. They were enthusiastic, excited about Judaism, and they were young and cool. I basically lived there, at Rodeph.”
Rabbi Steiner earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She took three years off between Penn and HUC — “I knew I was going to be a rabbi, so I wanted to do some real life first,” she said. She started at HUC in 2005, spent six months on a kibbutz and then a year at HUC in Jerusalem, and then came back to New York.
Now, Rachel Steiner, her husband, Dan, and their two children, Ezra, 9, and Asher, who just turned 8, live in a section of Fair Lawn called Radburn, which is one of the first planned communities in the country, she said. “It was built in the teens and ’20s; the houses are small, on tiny plots, with shared space.” It looks a little like Queens, she confirmed, and it gives her family a sense of community; it’s a little more urban than a standard suburb.
Community is overwhelmingly important to Rabbi Steiner.
“I want this to be a place where people walk in and feel held and whole, even though we’re all broken,” she said. “We do a potluck once a month, and the last time there were between 130 and 140 people there. It was multigenerational. I think that synagogues are one of the last places where people of the same generation go to be together. To love together. To live together.”
And that love will take Barnert Temple on the road to its next 120 years.