Sociologist William Helmreich kicked off the 90th anniversary celebration of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ with memories of Newark and other cities that spawned today’s suburban Jewish community.
Helmreich, author of a history of Newark Jews and their successors, was the keynote speaker at an Oct. 17 event marking the opening of “Federation@90,” a new exhibit on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, the federation’s headquarters.
More than 150 people attended the event, exploring the exhibit of posters and memorabilia and reminiscing about Newark, Elizabeth, and other communities that preceded the merged MetroWest and Central federations.
“Newark had a lot of esprit de corps,” said Helmreich, a professor at the City College of New York and its Graduate Center, and the author of The Enduring Community, The Jews of Newark and MetroWest.
“The people of Newark did not want to be identified with New York because they felt they would lose their identity. They wanted to be separate. You might call it ‘New Jersey nationalism.’”
Before and after the Conference of Jewish Charities was incorporated in 1923 as the forerunner of today’s Greater MetroWest federation, the city’s uniqueness “had most to do with the personalities that lived in this community.”
Among those he listed were the singer Fanny Brice, comedian Jerry Lewis, novelist Philip Roth, and department store owner and philanthropist Louis Bamberger.
Helmreich also called it a “myth” that the 1967 riots in the city’s African-American community “chased the Jews out of Newark.”
“The Jews were already gone by 1967” for the most part, he said. “Most of the Jews started leaving after World War II. Why did they start leaving after World War II? Because they wanted a nice house. They wanted green grass in front of their home. They were supported by the GI Bill. The size of Newark was limited. It was difficult to expand the city. Mortgages became available. And then there was the automobile and people started driving and so they were able to leave.”
Helmreich said both the African-American and suburban white communities sustain the erroneous idea that the riots precipitated “white flight.”
“Apparently people were so tied into Newark that they felt guilty about having left it, and they searched for a reason that would make them feel better about that decision,” he said.
In separate remarks, federation president Lori Klinghoffer praised the two communities that merged in 2012 to form Greater MetroWest and said that the two — one with roots in Newark, the other in Elizabeth — are both stronger as a result.
The exhibit, by the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, features posters focusing on the various agencies and schools operating under the federation umbrella, and artifacts from the society’s archives.
“Federation@90” will be on display in the atrium on the Aidekman campus until Nov. 27 and at the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains from mid-December through January. The exhibit will then travel to the Cooperman JCC in West Orange and the YM-YWHA of Union County in Union.