From garage to basement to museum

From garage to basement to museum

Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey finds new home

Treasures from the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey’s files and display cases.
Treasures from the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey’s files and display cases.

It’s been a long time coming. But when it opens its doors, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey’s new home in Fair Lawn will do even more than offer its extensive collection of photos and memorabilia. According to the group’s treasurer, Moe Liss, it will be “a local history museum.”

“For two years, the JHSNJ board has been saying, ‘We have to get out of the basement. We need a museum,’” Mr. Liss said.

The basement in question — at Barnert Hospital in Paterson — has been the most recent home to the society’s voluminous collection.

Overseen by Jerry Nathans, who is now the society’s president emeritus, since the 1980s, the basement quarters supplanted the organization’s earlier homes in Nathans’ garage, the Y in Wayne, and, briefly, William Paterson College.

“We have a gold mine here, over 175 years of local Jewish history,” Mr. Liss said. It’s an amazing collection. Now the entire nation can see it.” He hopes that the new location will be more visible and attract more people.

10-2-L-FilesAccording to a JHSNJ statement, the collection came into being in the 1980s, when Sylvia Firschein, the director of the Charles Goldman Judaica Library at the YMYWHA of North Jersey, “recognized [that] there was no collection of local Jewish history. She invited people to come and give oral histories and collected more than 100 interviews. From there the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey was born.”

Today, that collection includes artifacts such as silk mill tools and Torah covers, banners, trophies, yearbooks, newspapers, magazines, personal and family papers, and records of synagogues, service and social organizations, and businesses. The materials reflect the social, cultural, economic, and religious history of Jewish life in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties, Mr. Liss said.

He hopes that the new facility will serve as a museum, library, and resource center not only for individuals but also for groups from Jewish schools.

“It’s a focal point we didn’t have before, a valuable resource for the community,” Mr. Liss said. In addition, the new location — on River Road across from ShopRite — will be easily accessible and have onsite parking.

“We’re going to have a lot to do before it opens,” he said. “There’s an architectural firm drawing up plans for the building and rooms” — a board member, architect Marty Feitlowitz, who also is a former chair of the Paterson Historic Commission — has donated his architectural skills to the project — “and it needs to be climate controlled.” Then there are details like painting, decorating, and buying furniture.

10-3-L-25thAnniversaryStill, Mr. Liss said, “we plan to open after the holidays.”

He said that several years ago, the 12-member board — originally just friends of Mr. Nathans but now a more professional body — determined that the Barnert basement was “just a storage space” and had to be replaced by a larger, multiuse facility. Thanks to a grant from the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, the board was able to work with a strategic planner to reach this goal.

Reaching out to foundations, organizations, and individuals to get the funds it needed — the property cost $200,000 — “we exceeded our goals,” Mr. Liss, an active member of the fundraising committee, said.

“The real miracle of this is that we went from virtually having no money at all to raising enough to buy and to renovate a property in just a few months,” society president Richard Polton said in a statement issued by the organization. “The opportunity to buy our own home was met with contributions from dozens and dozens of friends of our organization. It was exceedingly gratifying to feel the strength of support from so many people who wanted to see this happen.”

The JHSNJ’s Photo Fridays has been a major factor “not only in advertising and promoting the historical society but in fundraising as well,” Mr. Liss said. Photo Fridays is an email showcasing photographs of community members, from a range of historical periods. Past president Dorothy Green started it a few years ago; it reaches 1,000 members and nonmembers as well as organizations and foundations.

10-4-L-BarnertPosterWhile the new facility will retain the services of archivist Miriam Spectre, it will be staffed primarily by volunteers, Mr. Liss said.

One longtime volunteer, Miriam Gray, was drawn to the society through her connection to Paterson. When she was a small child, as a result of her father’s job, her family moved to the city, and it remains foundational to her.

“I began kindergarten in Paterson,” Ms. Gray said. “More importantly, I started religious school in Paterson. So began a lifetime of commitment to Judaism, to Jewish education, to Israel, and to the magic of the Paterson Jewish community.”

“It was a special time in Jewish and American history,” she continued. “The post World War II environment brought forth a passion for synagogue attendance, a fierce commitment to Israel, and a strong, very connected Jewish community. This community, and my family’s earnest devotion to the Jewish community, left a lasting impression on me. Thus, my responsibility is to help maintain, preserve, and showcase the history of the community that changed lives by being a model of charity, good deeds, and brotherhood.”

10-5-L-DisplayCaseMr. Liss said that Fair Lawn was chosen as the location for the JHSNJ museum not just because it contained “a building perfect for our needs” but also because it contains a large Jewish population, is close to Paterson, “where a large percentage [of Jews] started out in the mid-1800s,” and will allow the group to reach out to more Jews in Bergen County. He credited Alvin Reisbaum of Wayne, a JHSNJ board member and former president of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, with selecting the site and negotiating for its purchase.

In the JHSNJ statement, Mr. Reisbaum said that the new facility will be able to offer climate-controlled rooms to protect the collections. There also will be areas for permanent exhibits and special displays, classes, meetings and events.

“We were a warehouse, but now we will be a museum,” he said.

“People should come because it’s their history,” said Mr. Liss, who was born and raised in Paterson and has been active in the local Jewish community for many years. Why has he been so passionate about the historical society? “I have tremendous roots in Paterson,” he said. “It was natural to get involved.”

Jerry Nathans recalled some of the many treasures the society holds.

10-6-L-LSBrooksTrucks“In more than 35 years, the society has amassed many wonderful items, including Jewish business and professional cards, telling who was here and what they did,” he said. “The Jewish community played an important part in the development of the city. Nathan Barnert was twice elected mayor, and a statue in his honor was erected in front of City Hall while he was still alive.

“The society has an autobiography by Rabbi Abraham Shinedling about life in Paterson from about 1900 to 1910 in the area mostly north of the Passaic River above Water Street. He gives many names and their occupations.

“We have records of congregations that no longer exist in both Passaic and Bergen Counties,” he continued. And we were able to microfilm the first five years of the Jewish Standard out of Jersey City.”

When the old Jewish Community News went out of business, its editor, Edith Sobel, gave the society hundreds of its photos. That’s unusual, he said — “most photographers, when their business closed, left their negatives on the curb.” Still, most of the photos are “unidentified, undated and no location or occasion,” he said. “We have Yiddish writings that need translation, as well as Yiddish and English books by local authors. We have congregation and organization scrap books and banners. There are oral interviews that need to be transcribed or digitized, handmade religious items — and so much more.”

10-7-L-CityHallGarageTo become a member of JHSNJ or make a tax deductible donation, go to or write to the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey, 680 Broadway, Suite 2, Paterson, N.J. 07514. Email or call (862) 257-1208 for more information.

Visitors are welcome to the collection at Barnert on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Appointments are necessary.

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