Past moves into present

Past moves into present

Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey on the road to new home in Fair Lawn

Like the proverbial wandering Jew, the vast archives of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey have been shunted from a room here to a basement there, several times since the society’s founding in 1980.

Jerry Nathans of Wayne, who has looked after the photos, documents, scrapbooks, oral histories, and synagogue records with great tenderness, says the archive now has a chance for a forever home. The historical society must raise a couple hundred thousand dollars by April 1 to make it happen.

As president emeritus of the organization, Mr. Nathans, 87, appealed to potential donors explaining the opportunity: “After more than 30 years of less than ideal housing, we have a Fair Lawn property in our sights that could become a perfect permanent home for the Society and the collection. It has suitable environmental conditions to preserve the archives and artifacts, and space for exhibits, events, research and meetings. Furthermore, it has ample parking and is easily reached from all North Jersey points.”

Jerry Nathans is the historical society’s president emeritus and its animating force. Jerry Szubin

The space encompasses about 2,500 square feet on the first floor of the River Road condominium that also houses, among other establishments, a satellite office of the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey.

“For the past six years, our collection has been housed in the basement of the former Barnert Hospital in Paterson,” Mr. Nathans said. “Access to the current facility is not good. Parking is a problem, and a lot of people don’t want to come into Paterson.”

Mr. Nathans hopes that Jewish residents of Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties will see this collection of words and images as much more than items collecting dust in boxes. “We’re doing this for our children and future generations,” he said. “It’s the story of Jewish life in America – and we very easily could walk away from it and no one would know we were here.”

Though it may seem absurd to imagine that no one would remember today’s large, vibrant North Jersey Jewish communities, Mr. Nathans pointed out that the society was founded because the formerly large and vibrant Jewish community of Paterson was in danger of being forgotten. Some 35,000 Jews lived in Paterson during its peak; many moved to Fair Lawn and neighboring communities after World War II.

“Jews started moving to Paterson and Newark in about 1840,” he said. “For 140 years, until we were established, no one had been preserving any part of those Jewish communities. The most important thing that existed was a biography of Nathan Barnert by Michael Baum.” Nathan Barnert was Paterson’s mayor from 1883 to 1886; he was Jewish, and a strong supporter of local Jewish and general causes.

“Other than that, historians made little reference, if any, to the fact that Jews even existed in the area,” says Mr. Nathans, whose family had a picture-framing business in Paterson for 75 years.

The Fair Lawn location would allow the archive to transform from a warehouse to a museum, with a gallery for rotating themed exhibitions.

“We will have children from synagogues and schools viewing our collection,” predicted Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey board member Moe Liss. “It’s a perfect setup that gives us the flexibility to do the things we always wanted to do.”

The society, which recently appointed eight new board members, received an allocation from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey to engage a strategic planner, and an additional allocation toward the real-estate purchase. A professional archivist, Miriam Spectre of Teaneck, has begun sorting the collection in preparation for the move. The forward-thinking society has a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and every week it emails a selection of six historic photographs from its collection to Photo Friday subscribers.

“Collecting artifacts is one half of our mission,” said Mr. Liss, who will be honored at the society’s annual fundraising gala on May 12 at the YJCC in Washington Township.

“The other half is reaching out and educating the local younger Jewish generation about who we were and what we did. They are who they are because we came before them and set the stage.”

About 100 oral histories on tape, some of them since transcribed, formed the original nucleus of the collection. “Someone came to Sylvia Firschein at the Wayne Library around 1980 and asked if she had information about her grandfather, and she realized nothing existed about the Jewish community,” Mr. Nathans said. “She put out requests for people to come in and do oral interviews, and that is how we started.”

As its website,, says: “The Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey collects personal and family papers; records of synagogues, service and social organizations, and businesses; and other materials documenting the social, cultural, economic, political, and religious history of Jewish life in Passaic, Bergen, [and] northern Hudson counties.”

Among the treasures in the collection are a satin banner from the Independent United Jersey Verein, a “landsmannschaft” or immigrant benevolent organization; and a 15,000-page autobiography of Rabbi Abraham Shinedling, an itinerant pulpit rabbi, prison chaplain, and Hebrew school principal who documented the names and occupations of every Jewish Paterson resident when he lived there for about 10 years at the turn of the 20th century.

There are scrapbooks from Hadassah and B’nai B’rith Women, records from the Jewish War Veterans, and documents from defunct organizations and synagogues including the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Paterson, the Hebrew Free School of Paterson, Barnert Hospital, Congregation Sons of Israel of Leonia, Temple Beth Am of Teaneck, and Temple Emanuel in Passaic.

The archive’s many photographs, some dating to the late 1800s, include quite a few snapshots of tombstones, which is helpful when people from around the world get in touch with Mr. Nathans, looking for information about family gravesites in North Jersey. If he cannot find the stone in question in a photo, he walks through old cemeteries until more often than not he finds the right one.

Locating the Fair Lawn property follows a much longer search. Board member Alvin Reisbaum, a Paterson native living in Wayne, explains that he contacted a broker about a Maple Avenue space he noticed for rent as he drove by it one day. That space was not big enough for the archive, but the broker suggested the River Road property. Mr. Reisbaum led the negotiations, resulting in a contract to buy the space for $200,000. It will require an additional $50,000 for renovations and furnishings.

“We have such an extraordinary collection, but if we can’t exhibit it, then what’s the purpose of having it?” asked Mr. Reisbaum, a former president of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey.

Tax-deductible donations can be made online or by check (the mailing address is Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey, 680 Broadway, Suite 2, Paterson, N.J. 07514); naming possibilities may interest larger donors. Individual membership in the society costs $18.

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