Revisiting our Jewish roots

Revisiting our Jewish roots

The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey heads to Newark

The group from the Healthcare Foundation leaves the near-mythic Beth, birthplace of many of Newark’s Jews for generations.
The group from the Healthcare Foundation leaves the near-mythic Beth, birthplace of many of Newark’s Jews for generations.

On June 13, trustees and staff members of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey embarked on a unique bus tour of Newark.

The goal was to reconnect with the foundation’s historical roots in the city’s once-thriving Jewish community.

Khaatim Sherrer-El, the executive director of Clinton Hill Community Action, talks to the group.

For more than a quarter of a century, the HFNJ has provided grants to organizations working to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable underserved populations in Newark and its environs, and to the Jewish community of Greater MetroWest.

This mission goes back to the organization’s creation in 1996, when Newark Beth Israel Medical Center (known to many as just “the Beth”) was sold to the RWJ-Barnabas healthcare system for $125 million. Since its inception, HFNJ has provided more than $180 million to improve the health and well-being of everyone in the community.

In front, Beth Levithan, Jean Mandell, and Grace Blanco talk together.

To further connect the trustees and staff to HFNJ’s history, our first stop on this bus tour — fittingly — was HFNJ’s historic birthplace – the Beth. Much has changed since 1901, when the Newark Jewish community founded the hospital in a modest house. It began as a place where Jewish doctors who were barred from working at other hospitals could practice their profession, and, importantly, where people of all faiths and from walks of life could receive quality medical care.

In recent months, the Beth has gone through several upgrades; among them, it opened an impressive new glass-enclosed atrium and main entrance, which embodies the institution’s tradition of welcoming all in the community into the hospital.

NFNS board members and staffers stand around a recently installed sculpture of the Black abolitionist, activist, and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

The group from HFNJ also toured the maternity ward and the ongoing major renovation of the emergency department, which is being reconstructed and modernized thanks in part to a silver jubilee $5 million grant from HFNJ.

The hospital is in the Weequahic section of Newark’s South Ward, a neighborhood that once was the heart of the city’s Jewish community. As they toured the neighborhood, trustees described their own family connections to the area. Several were born at the Beth or had ties to the historic nearby Weequahic High School. Many had families that lived in the blocks surrounding the hospital.

The group listens to local activists.

The tour moved next to the nearby headquarters of Clinton Hill Community Action. Staff there spoke about the inspiring work the relatively new organization already is doing to revitalize the l neighborhood. The group toured a complex of refrigerated storage units that Clinton Hill Community Action created with a grant from HFNJ to become a centralized food storage hub for neighborhood pantries. This already has had a positive impact in fighting food insecurity among residents; it is the first step of a larger project to address the food desert in the community.

The tour continued across town to the Ironbound section and a visit to two sites managed by Ironbound Community Corporation – an impressive, lively, and colorful early childhood learning center, and the thriving urban agricultural center, Down Bottom Farms. While some trustees fondly remember walking home from school every day to join their families for lunch, today lunches primarily are served in school. The farm provides an opportunity to teach students about healthy, nutritious diets and farm-to-table menus.

Amy Schechner is chair of the foundation’s board.

The group continued with a tour of Riverfront Park and met with staff from the Trust for Public Land and Newark City Parks Foundation, which created the beautiful park from a formerly neglected and polluted embankment of the Passaic River, thanks in part to a grant from HFNJ. Trustees and staff learned about the legacy of pollution and environmental damage that still haunts the area today and leads to increasingly worse health outcomes for residents. Sitting as it does at the confluence of rail lines and major highways and abutting one of the busiest ports and airports in the country, poor air quality remains a persistent issue in the Ironbound neighborhood. Moreover, its historical location as a site for factories (many of which produced toxic materials including the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange) lead to serious environmental damage. Groups like the Trust for Public Land and Newark City Parks Foundation are working to ameliorate these conditions and break the connection between environmental damage and poor health outcomes
for residents.

The tour highlighted the theme of interconnectedness: threading the past to present and strengthening the ties between foundation trustees and staff to the community. Tour participants could trace the clear thread that ran from the turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish emigres who founded Newark Beth Israel to the community groups working in Newark today. The hospital’s Jewish forbears were motivated by the value of tikkun olam — repairing the world — as they sought to create lasting institutions to care for their neighbors, improve their community,
and build a better and healthier future.

Similarly, while they may not use the phrase tikkun olam to describe their own work today, such groups as Clinton Hill Community Action and Ironbound Community Corporation are marshalling the same values and spirit as they advocate, organize, and provide the building blocks of healthy living for the communities that call Newark their home today.

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