Celebrating history "“ warts and all
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Celebrating history "“ warts and all

Ridgewood museum explores community's transition from restrictive to inclusive

How do you celebrate a state anniversary?

At Ridgewood’s Schoolhouse Museum, the answer lies in a special exhibit, “A Community’s Journey,” showcasing the area’s evolution over the last 300 years.

According to Roberta Sonenfeld – co-curator of the exhibit with Sheila Brogan and Vicky Herbert – the New Jersey Historical Commission suggested to state museums that they mark New Jersey’s 350th anniversary with displays focusing on one of three themes: liberty, innovation, or diversity.

“We started to brainstorm and decided to tackle all three themes,” said Ms. Sonenfeld, who has been a member of the museum’s board for two years.

“We tell the story of a community in transition,” Ms. Sonenfeld said, adding that “the community was not always welcoming to diversity.”

To illustrate that theme, the curators decided to highlight four groups: Jews, African Americans, Koreans, and the Irish community.

Charged with coordinating the Jewish piece of the diversity section, Ms. Sonenfeld reached out to three area rabbis: David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, and Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

The exhibit has not shied away from difficult issues, including, for example, a restrictive deed, dated 1919, specifying that a particular plot of land could never be sold to “Mongols, Negroes, or Semites.” The deed, Ms. Sonenfeld said, was for a transaction between a woman in Ridgewood and a developer who bought land on the west side of the town.

The museum also has a copy of the Ridgewood realty code, in effect through the 1940s, affirming that realtors would “only sell to people who are like the people already there, meaning, in general, white Christians.”

A Ku Klux Klan outfit, dating from the 1920s, when the Klan was active in the area, also is on display.

The Klan “met in Ridgewood,” Ms. Sonenfeld said. “They were particularly vocal against Eastern European Jewish immigrants coming here in large numbers, considering them a threat to American culture.”

Still, she said, the community clearly has evolved over the years.

The exhibit “is not just a negative thing from the point of view of history, but even more, it’s a celebration of our current diversity,” she said. “We have a bit to go, but we’ve become much more progressive across the board.”

She noted that a member of Barnert Temple, who lived in Ridgewood as a boy and owns property in the town’s business district, loaned the museum a copy of the original letter rescinding the Ridgewood realty code in 1945.

“He told us a story about it,” she said. “A family came from Manhattan and bought a house in 1945. The husband was Jewish. When the realtor found out, he rescinded the sale. The family went to [the congregant’s] dad. He found attorneys from Manhattan who said the realtors had to sell the couple the house. They took it to the state, which found in favor of the couple and said the code had to be rescinded or they would revoke the license of every realtor in Ridgewood.”

Ms. Sonenfeld said that the exhibit, which she called “a journey in so many ways,” was a big undertaking.

“Traditionally, we’ve used our own collection, which includes a lot of material from the Dutch and the Lenape Indians,” she said. For this exhibit, however, she got in touch with the local rabbis, “and we had meetings just to think through what we would do, what we would show, and how we would display it. They turned me on to people in their congregations,” who gave suggestions and provided items for the exhibit.

Among those people interviewed for the exhibit were Cipora O. Schwartz, author of “An American Jewish Odyssey: American Religious Freedoms and the Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple,” and Evelyn Auerbach, longtime Glen Rock resident and member of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel.

Ms. Auerbach, who has lived in the area for some 59 years, said she realized many years ago that non-Jewish residents knew little about the Jewish community. When she attended an interfaith meeting on brotherhood at the request of her rabbi in the 1950s, “I said that the idea of brotherhood was very important to the Jewish people,” she recalled. “A woman at the meeting looked at me like I was from outer space.”

Ms. Auerbach said that while Jews long have set up businesses in Ridgewood, “they were not allowed to live on the right side of town.

“It was a gentleman’s agreement that you would not rent or sell to Jews. Jewish people who bought businesses lived upstairs over their stores on the main drag or lived behind their businesses. They couldn’t buy houses in certain areas.”

While things have certainly changed, she said, “old prejudices die hard,” especially with some of the town’s older families.

Still, she said, “I think you can call it inclusive now. There are a lot of Asians, lots of Jews, and blacks living in the nice sections.” She pointed out, however, that while her synagogue, Temple Israel, is based in Ridgewood, its members come from nine towns.

Ms. Sonenfeld said that after consultation with the three synagogue communities, the curators decided to focus on artifacts used in homes, especially for the holidays.

“We got a lot of stuff from various parts of the community,” she said, noting such items as a shofar, Haggadah, oil menorah, yad, Havdalah set, Purim grogger, tzedakah box, “and a beautiful piece from Belarus. We have two vitrines” – glass cases – “divided between older silver items and more modern pieces.”

The Schoolhouse Museum is run by a private organization, the Ridgewood Historical Society; its building, erected in 1872, was a one-room schoolhouse until 1905, and opened as a museum in 1955. It is funded by donations, Ms. Sonenfeld said.

“When we have a special exhibit, we get sponsors. This pulled in more sponsors than any other exhibit. With our outreach to the community, it became a kind of community exhibit.”

She also is excited about other parts of the exhibit, especially the innovation section, which centers on the arts.

“It’s really cool,” she said. “We borrowed stuff from the Ridgewood Gilbert and Sullivan Society, including a wedding outfit from the ‘Mikado.'” Also on display are items owned by noted Ridgewood magician Harry Rouclere, who died in 1942.

“The reaction from the community has been great,” she said, adding that while the museum is open Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 3 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m., she would be happy to offer group tours at other times as well.

For more information, email tours@ridgewoodhistoricalsociety.org or call (201) 447-3242.

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A display shows modern Jewish life in Ridgewood.
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