Growing up in Newark’s Weequahic section, I was never part of the Other. My friends, classmates, parents, and relatives comprised the Whole. It was only when I reached high school did I realize there were Others, and even then Jews remained decidedly in the majority and shared it, to some degree, with the Irish, Italian, Poles, blacks, and a sprinkling of WASPs in our midst.
To be defined and stereotyped in the 1950s in Weequahic was by your school (Maple, Peshine, Hawthorne, Bragaw, Chancellor, Bergen Street, the Annex to Weequahic High, and finally the big building itself), the stickball lot where you played (mine was a vacant stretch on Osborne Terrace between Scheerer and Shephard avenues), the candy story you hung out at (Stein’s on the corner of Shephard and Osborne, where I was also a crossing guard until a fight cost me my shield; my future brother-in-law hung out at Barry’s a block away, but Stein’s had less tilt-prone pinball machines), the movie theater you frequented (the Park on Bergen Street, where Saturday afternoon serials, cartoons, and two features cost 25 cents) and the stoop-ball “court” you zealously defended with your trusty Spaldeen. I never made the vaunted corner court at Maple Avenue School because Johnny Drury, one of the few gentiles around, kept all challengers at bay with his superb carom play.
Of course, there was one more defining symbol, perhaps in its own way, the most important; the temple, congregation, or shul where you and your parents belonged. Was it Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox? How difficult was its Hebrew school? Was the rabbi a good sermonizer? A strict disciplinarian? Did the services run long? As bar mitzvah time approached (bat mitzvahs were rarer in the 1950s), my friends and I would compare notes and try to establish bragging rights about whose shul was “better,” where was the reception going to be held (mine was at the Mirror Room of the Essex House Hotel), how many guests would attend, how gaudy would it be (after all, it was the 1950s), and, afterward, how much swag did you collect. Tikkun olam or special uplift projects rarely entered the conversations.
My family belonged to B’nai Jeshurun, the domed downtown edifice with Byzantine architectural flourishes at Waverly Avenue and High Street (now MLK Boulevard). Founded by German Jews and decidedly Reform in its service, B’nai Jeshurun was one of Newark’s “Big Three,” along with Conservative Oheb Shalom farther up High Street and just next door to the imposing Newark Y, and Temple B’nai Abraham, also Conservative and domed, more uptown on Clinton Avenue. Its rabbi, Joachim Prinz, who had fled the Nazis, was an early supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later marched with him.
I was consistently ridiculed by some of my Conservative and Orthodox friends for belonging to a “church,” since much of the service was in English, no one davened or wore a tallis, and the loft choir consisted mostly of gentile “ringers.” My spiritual leader was Ely Pilchik, and I, ahem, worshipped him. In retrospect, I suppose he modeled the image of a somewhat distant and detached rabbi to perfection. He seemed ideally cast for the role, with a thatch of silvery hair, ceremonial robes, and a voice supple to perfection. His pronunciation would take a word like “revealed” and stretch it to reveal-ed-duh. Rabbi Pilchik, who was also a prolific author, would officiate at my bar mitzvah (especially festive since it was Sukkot and the bimah was festooned with harvest decorations}, confirm me, eulogize my parents, and preside at my wedding. He also chanced to meet me at a restaurant when I was in a military policeman’s uniform while making up an Army Reserve assignment, and both of us skipped eye contact.
What caused this sudden surge in nostalgia? I trace it to the recent afternoon when I arrived at the JCC Metrowest in West Orange for a workout and spotted a group of visitors deeply absorbed in the glass-enclosed Gaelen Gallery East. I joined them out of curiosity and in an instant became just as engrossed as they were in an exhibit entitled “Synagogues of Newark.”
The space featured eye-catching billboards, some suspended from the ceiling, others floor-mounted, illuminating the history and evolution of individual shuls, their mergers, relocation to the suburbs, or, sadly, their demise. Many of the photos of buildings, spiritual leaders, and bar mitzvah celebrations stretched back a century or more. Moving from billboard to billboard created a virtual streetscape, offering a rich panorama of a city and its Jewish underpinnings. And the Gaelen’s limited space actually worked to advantage, making the tour even more intimate.
Curated by the New Jersey Jewish History Museum and using the resources of the Newark Library, the records and archives of the synagogues themselves, and the research depth of the New Jersey Jewish Historical Society, the exhibit is fully titled “The Synagogues of Newark: Where We Gathered and Prayed, Studied and Celebrated.” (See below.) The sense of community is overwhelming and reflects the city’s vitality as a destination for immigrant German Jews in the early 19th century and their Eastern European cousins in even greater numbers decades later.
These arrivals and their offspring (my grandfather and mother among them) accounted for approximately 20 percent of Newark’s population in the 1910 census and they fully invested themselves in the city’s economic, educational, cultural, and political destiny. This in turn meant more shuls for different streams of worshippers spread across different neighborhoods. The “Big Three” synagogues did, however, attract congregants citywide. Soon after B’nai Jeshurun was founded in 1848, a rift developed with a faction opposed to its Reform tendencies, whose members bolted and formed Oheb Shalom in 1861. B’nai Abraham came into being in 1853, supported by Jews from Poland who disliked the Germanic trappings of the other houses of worship.
All three congregations thrive today in Newark’s suburbs, having been spurred to move by dramatic changes in demographics and the jolting aftereffects of the 1967 Newark riots (or civil disorders or rebellion, depending on your point of view). The vacated or demolished buildings — ranging from magnificent edifices to humble storefronts, with some finding second acts as homes for black churches — underscored the assimilation, determination, prosperity, and pride of Newark’s Jewish community. B’nai Jeshurun and B’nai Abraham contained massive sanctuaries under the domes. Oheb Shalom’s original brooding structure on Prince Street cast a red brick glow of Moorish design over a swath of the Central Ward. And Ahavath Zion’s classic revival design, built on the flatiron contours of a 16th Avenue tract for $200,000 in 1921, served the Orthodox congregation handsomely until it moved to Maplewood in 1967.
The riots represented a watershed for every Newark shul and resulted in a rebalancing of already strained relations between Jews and blacks. For Newarkers who lived in the city from the 1940s (when there were 33 congregations) through the early 1970s (when only eight remained) and now call the suburbs home, the exhibit will prove especially resonant. You can locate your childhood place of worship, view photos of its leaders, its sanctuary, or even its Torah scrolls, and learn about its ultimate institutional fate. Helpful charts delineate the Jewish population of the city by wards and the number of shuls from decade to decade. A sidebar illustrates the life and blueprints of architect Nathan Myers, whose design showpieces include Beth Israel Hospital, B’nai Abraham, Ahavath Zion, and the Court Theater.
Of the three shuls to which my relatives belonged, two vanished and one relocated within several blocks of my West Orange home. Cousin Yale attended Young Israel, quite Orthodox and quite extinct after an intra-Newark relocation and the riots. Grandpa Max worshipped at tiny Agudath Israel, now forlorn and empty at Peshine and Custer avenues after being bought and abandoned by a church. My uncles Sam and Hesh belonged to Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob on Hawthorne Avenue, which added “David” to its name when it merged and moved to West Orange, where today it maintains itself as a robust modern Orthodox congregation.
Only two shuls remain in Newark; the activist, inclusive Ahavas Shalom at 145 Broadway, home to the New Jersey Jewish History Museum on its second floor, and Mount Sinai Congregation at the Ivy Hill apartments, serving an exclusively Russian-émigré population. One of the more dramatic examples of the consolidation (or disappearance or self-selection) process occurred when Congregation Israel came into being in 1968 as the inheritor of 16 predecessor shuls. Located initially at Knesseth Israel on Bergen Street, only two years later it moved to join with Young Israel of Springfield, where it survives under its original name and preserves the memorial plaques of former congregants.
Visitors to the JCC’s “Synagogues of Newark” are encouraged to contribute to a work in progress. Because certain older records have been difficult to vet, and various narrative and anecdotal gaps exist, exhibit-goers can become interactive and supply additional information as their own memories percolate. Newark’s rich Jewish history and lore represent a vital chapter about a city in constant reinvention, and it’s certainly worth the efforts to preserve and pass on.
Jonathan E. Lazarus celebrated his bar mitzvah and confirmation at Temple B’nai Jeshurun, then in Newark. He retired after a career of nearly 40 years as an editor at the Star Ledger and now works as a proofreader at the Jewish Standard.
What: “Synagogues of Newark,” an exhibit curated by the New Jersey Jewish History Museum. An automated slide show highlights Jewish Newarkers of note
Where: JCC Metrowest Gaelen Gallery East, 760 Northfield Ave., West Orange
When: Through July 31
Cost: Free to the public
For more information: (973) 530-3400 or www.jccmetrowest.org