In 1979, librarian Sylvia Firschein, who worked at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, recruited volunteers to form an oral history committee. Her goal was to document personal reminiscences of Jews from the Paterson area before their stories were lost to the ages.
Before long, committee chairman Jerry Nathans began collecting and preserving historical records as well. In 1982, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey was founded as a formal archive dedicated to educating today’s Jewish community about its vibrant past.
For 33 years, Mr. Nathans and other volunteers tenderly oversaw the collection of photos, documents, scrapbooks, oral histories, and synagogue records in a series of cramped rooms and musty basements. Finally, in the fall of 2015, the JHSNJ moved to permanent quarters in Fair Lawn.
Now with its collection properly displayed and fully accessible to the public and scholars, the JHSNJ offers rotating exhibits and events with the support of donors and grants.
Some of the treasures in the JHSNJ collection include original oil portraits of philanthropist Nathan Barnert, Paterson’s Jewish mayor from 1883 to 1886, and his wife, Miriam; Torah covers from synagogues long since defunct; newspapers; family documents; organizational papers from synagogues, women’s groups and benevolent associations, Jewish sports and social clubs, especially the Paterson YMCA; and many photographs, some of them identified and others not.
Though the collection is largely made up of items from Passaic County from the late 19th and early- to mid-20th century, the society is seeking to increase its Hudson and Bergen archives and to draw the interest of residents of those counties.
“Our founders were from Passaic and many of our leadership from Paterson, myself included,” the group’s executive director, Joy Kurland, said. “One of our major goals is to reach out to the larger constituency of Bergen and Hudson, which our Fair Lawn location has enabled us to do.”
Now, as the JHSNJ embarks on its new Fund for the Future campaign, the organization won a $6,000 Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institutions from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This particular grant is not merely a check signed and handed over. It pays for a preservation expert to come to examine the archive and prepare a full report recommending ways to create preservation goals, apply for more funding to protect the collection, and make the collection more accessible to the public.
On May 30, the society welcomed Dyani Feige, the director of preservation services for the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. Ms. Feige spent the day with JHSNJ staff and board members and in the collection storage areas and exhibit rooms.
“The kind of things Ms. Feige looked at ranged from the policies of who can use what and where, how papers and artifacts are stored, to the nitty gritty of pests and mold, which we were happy not to have!” board member Alison Faubert said. “She researched building maintenance and security and the temperature, humidity and light where the collection is stored and displayed.”
Marty Feitlowitz, a JHSNJ vice president, said he was impressed by Ms. Feige’s knowledge of the products that are available to protect the archival storage areas in case of flooding or fire, without spending a fortune.
“She presented options, knowing that our budget would require economically effective solutions,” he said. “We learned that it is important to include an environmental recording data logger that records temperature and humidity over time to safeguard our collection.”
Ms. Feige said that in a typical year she visits about 10 institutions to conduct preservation needs assessments or risk assessments — often part of an emergency preparedness effort — and she also works with several institutions on developing preservation plans.
But this was the first time she has worked with a Jewish historical society on this type of assessment, she said — and she came away with a positive impression.
“Particularly given the predominately volunteer-led nature of much of the Historical Society’s work, I was quite impressed by their accomplishments as well as their recognition and understanding of preservation concerns,” she said.
“It is clearly a very important collection, and I hope that the relatively new space, coupled with increased access to the collections and increased care and management following some of the recommendations of this needs assessment, will help open it up to additional researchers and other members of the community. There is a great deal of potential here for use and education.”
Before she issues her forthcoming report, she talked about three main recommendations she will offer in it.
The first is developing and implementing written policies to guide the collection’s care and management. “This will help inform future collecting decisions, including donations that are already coming in fairly consistently but also extending the word to other families in the region who might have significant historical materials to donate,” she said.
The second is reorganizing some of the storage spaces to optimize accessibility and support of the items they contain. “This will include processing — sorting and describing — as well as rehousing some of the collections, projects which are already underway but perhaps the report can give some recommendations on refining and streamlining the work.”
Her third main suggestion is to implement formal training sessions on handling and processing the collections “for the fantastic, highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers who are largely responsible for collections care efforts” as a way to enhance “the excellent work already being done.”
Ms. Kurland said the programs and exhibitions the center offers indeed depend upon this dedicated volunteer corps.
For example, during the three final months of 2017, the society mounted an exhibit on local Jewish summer camps past and present, featuring photos, memorabilia, and even a “canteen” to evoke the camp atmosphere. About 100 people attended the open house in October.
“This program was the brainchild of Paterson native Ina Cohen Harris of Fair Lawn, one of our board members and the honoree at our gala in May this year,” Ms. Kurland said.
Among other programs in the past several months, Edith Sobel of Fort Lee, the original editor of the Jewish Community News of Bergen and Passaic counties, gave a talk about how to record life stories. Historian Daniel Walkowitz, a professor emeritus at NYU who grew up in Paterson, spoke about tracing his family roots in Eastern Europe.
In cooperation with the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College, JHSNJ sponsored “Coming to America: Survivors of the Shoah and Jewish Immigrants from the FSU and Middle East,” featuring a panel discussion among two Holocaust survivors, a woman from Lebanon and a woman from Odessa, speaking about their immigration experiences.
Ms. Kurland said the society hopes to arrange a trip to West Point for a tour led by its Jewish chaplain, as well as a trip to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan and a Jewish walking tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“We also want to do a walking tour of Paterson,” Mr. Feitlowitz said. “Unfortunately, so many of the edifices are gone but the history is still there.”
The exhibit in the Fair Lawn headquarters, “Israel at 70,” will continue through mid-October. An exhibit on the history of the YM-YWHAs in northern New Jersey will follow.
“Our opening meeting in September will feature Elaine Freed Lindenblatt, whose family owned the original Red Apple Rest, the famous roadside eatery and rest stop on Route 17 en route to the Catskills, and author of the book ‘Stop at the Red Apple,’” Ms. Kurland said.
The society is open to visitors, scholars, researchers, and students on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and at other times by appointment. The address is 17-10 River Road, Suite 3A, Fair Lawn. For further information, call (201) 300-6590 or email email@example.com.