With nearly 40 years under its belt, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey — founded in Wayne as an oral history project in 1979, and guided throughout its growth by a cadre of enthusiastic volunteers — still is blessed with people willing to roll up their sleeves to collect and preserve the historical record of the area’s Jewish communities.
Now housed in Fair Lawn, the society, which for many years relied upon the kindness of strangers to shelter its growing collection, and spent more than a few years in the cramped quarters of Barnert Hospital’s basement, soon will honor one of those passionate preservationists, Marty Feitlowitz of West Orange.
Joy Kurland, now the society’s part-time executive director and its 2016 honoree, points with pride to previous honorees, including president emeritus and longtime JHSNJ powerhouse and spokesman Jerry Nathans, Moe Liss, and Dr. Leonard Cole. She notes also that the painstaking work of creating a collection — and now, thanks to the new facility, an exhibit space — owes much to the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic.
Mr. Feitlowitz, the group’s vice president of operations and a former chair of the Paterson Historic Commission, recalls that “when I first joined the organization, in the basement of the Barnert Hospital, it wasn’t a place conducive to people visiting and going through the collection and looking things up.
“And there was no place to park.
“We needed our own building, and I thought maybe I could help,” he said. “I had a background as an architect and had seen a lot of buildings. I spent a lot of time looking at properties but could never seem to find the right place.” But then, nearly two years later, “we finally decided to focus on Fair Lawn, the center of the Jewish population of the three-county area we represent. That became the focal point.”
When the condo on River Road, just across from ShopRite, became available, “I volunteered my services doing the architectural work, interior design, ordering furniture, hiring contractors, painters, etc.,” Mr. Feitlowitz said. “We moved in a year and a half ago.”
He also decided that “we needed to develop a timeline of the area’s Jewish history,” and that project now is well off the ground, with the creation of three large panels showing the period from 1840 until 1915. He hopes that one day the line will reach up to 2020. “And it may take us that long,” Mr. Feitlowitz joked. The project is being funded by two grants received from New York’s Herbert Goldman Foundation.
“Some of the stuff we had, but a lot we had to find,” Mr. Feitlowitz said. “There was a plethora of information on Paterson and its immediate environs. The group that started the society was from Paterson, Passaic, and Wayne. We really had to dig to find the history of the Bergen County Jewish community.”
Mr. Feitlowitz said it’s been 60 years since he lived in Paterson, “but I’ve never moved that far away.”
With help from Ms. Kurland and many others, including Teaneck community activist and former mayor Jackie Kates, the timeline committee found books, “contacted Dr. George Kirsch, who grew up in Hackensack and was a history professor, and here and there were able to get pieces to put together, some of it online,” Mr. Feitlowitz said. At first, there was no information on Hudson County, “but now at least we know where the first settlements were and where and when the first synagogue was formed,” he said. “It’s enough to get it started.”
Mr. Feitlowitz credits his committee with the project’s success. “Everyone had an assignment,” he said. “Photo, texts, or knowledge from their own family. It was a group effort.” He’s “having a ball,” he added, “but it’s so hard to work in with real life. I love every minute that’s gone into it, but we have a long way to go.”
He feels that in some way he has brought the society’s work “into the light,” he continued. He has designed display cases — the committee determines what should be displayed — but said, “We’re just in the infant stages. I’d like to see this grow into a coordinated exhibit, with artifacts on display plus narratives on the wall.
“We don’t have a lot of information going back to 1840,” he said. “It’s hard to find photos. The camera had just been invented.” The historical society selected that starting year because “Temple B’nai Jeshurun, now Barnert Temple, was founded in 1847, so there had to be a few Jews there. Barnert was the very first synagogue incorporated in the State of New Jersey.”
Mr. Feitlowitz said he thinks that through his architectural work, “I have grown to appreciate things from the past: civilizations, cultures, old architecture.
When you go to Europe, you don’t tour the great suburbs. All the interest is in the old cities and the old sections of the old cities. I began to get hooked on remembering the past and honoring the past. There’s so much to learn from the people who came before us.”
He is awed by what the early settlers had to face, “and the courage it must have taken to leave their home of several centuries,” whether or not they did so voluntarily. “They didn’t all arrive here as doctors and lawyers. Someone in our family had the courage to leave a bad situation so that their children and grandchildren would have a better life.”
Ms. Kurland, who sat on the society’s board before taking the volunteer position she holds now, said, “One of our proudest accomplishments is being able to bring our dream to fruition, coming to a space that can afford us the room to do the important work of preserving and conserving Jewish history in North Jersey.
“We now have two archival rooms, a multitude of documents and items and collections, personal and otherwise, which are catalogued, inventoried, and that we hope to digitize. We have a conference room for board meetings, a volunteer room, office space, and display cabinets, purchased through grants, for rotating exhibits. Our home now can serve as a museum as well as an archival repository.”
It is “a wonderful feeling to be able to have this home to show the beauty and depth and range of the Jewish history of Passaic, Bergen, and Hudson counties,” Ms. Kurland said.
Funding comes from grants, private donations, membership fees, and fundraisers, such as the annual dinner honoring Mr. Feitlowitz.
“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,” the society’s president, Richard Polton, said in a statement that the organization issued last year. “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.”
While visitors often come to the society to look at its collection, “every day we receive phone calls from people who want to bring memorabilia and artifacts to us,” Ms. Kurland said. “We accept if we can.” In addition, researchers call looking for specific information. Much of this work is handled by part-time archivist Stephanie Diorio.
The historical society has come far. Overseen by Jerry Nathans since the 1980s, the growing collection lived for a time not only in the Barnert basement but in Mr. Nathans’ garage, the Y in Wayne, and William Paterson College.
Longtime leader and past honoree Moe Liss said in an earlier interview, before the purchase of the Fair Lawn property, “We have a gold mine here, over 175 years of local Jewish history. It’s an amazing collection. Now the entire nation can see it.”
The 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, Mr. Liss said, reflect the social, cultural, economic, and religious history of Jewish life in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties. He noted also that the JHSNJ’s Photo Fridays has been a major factor “not only in advertising and promoting the historical society but in fundraising as well.”
Who: Marty Feitlowitz
What: Will be honored by the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey
When: On May 17 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: At Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.
Cost: Tickets cost $75 per person. Profits benefit the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey, a 501 (c) 3 organization.
Furthermore: The society opens its doors to visitors, scholars, researchers and students on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Fridays by appointment. It is at 17-10 River Road, Suite 3A, Fair Lawn. For information, call (201) 300-6590, email email@example.com, or go to jhsnj.wordpress.com.