Some 150 miles north of New Jersey, a college student has created a living monument to Newark’s Jewish community.
On the second floor lounge of the Social Sciences Building at Union College in Schenectady, NY, Jennifer Winkelried’s exhibit, “A Glimpse of Jewish Newark: The Immigrant Experience,” features artifacts from long-ago synagogues, a nurse’s uniform from Newark Beth Israel Hospital, and a shul’s stained-glass window.
Inspired by the life of her grandfather, Winkelried, a senior from Short Hills, spent nine months preparing a senior history project with the assistance of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest.
“This means a lot to me. I worked on this for nine months. This is my baby,” she told NJ Jewish News at the opening of the exhibit on the campus on May 7.
The opening drew a crowd of curious students, faculty, and Schenectady residents. It ran through May 13.
Rather than submit a conventional term paper, Winkelried crafted a museum exhibit that she called “public history,” with videos, display cases, and walls of photographs.
Her faculty adviser, Teresa Meade, called it “really wonderful. When you are a historian you have to take a huge amount of materials from the past and synthesize them in a way that is understandable to an audience.”
Student and teacher sorted materials provided by the JHS into categories — people, community, commerce, worship, and culture.
Many elements of the exhibit are quite striking. Leaning against a window facing onto the bucolic campus is a frame of stained-glass with a Star of David, salvaged from Rodfay Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue on Clinton Place, when it was being demolished.
Hanging on a pillar in the center of the room is a gray cape that was part of a nurse’s uniform at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in the 1940s.
In one display case are products that were once sold at an old-fashioned mom-and-pop grocery store, with ancient cereal boxes and containers of cleansers.
The photographs on display range from seamstresses at the Weingarten corset factory in 1915 to campaigners for Meyer Ellenstein — who served as Newark’s first and only Jewish mayor from 1933 to 1941 — to a Weequahic High School saxophone choir in 1933.
“I’m not Jewish,” Meade said, “and the way I relate to Newark is I’ve read most of Philip Roth’s novels. We have a lot of students here from New Jersey and a good number who are Jewish, and I think this will resonate with many of them.”
The exhibit made a strong impression on Rachel Schafer, a senior from Coxsackie, NY.
“I was blown away,” she said. “I am not Jewish but I am learning so much about a Jewish history I had no idea about.”
Michael Clarke, a student from Montclair, is not Jewish either, but what he saw had a special meaning.
“A lot of my family is from Newark, so the perspective I got was from the Italians. This is cool because it is from a whole different part of Newark I never knew existed,” he said.
On a small table sits perhaps the most poignant part of the display — three photographs of Winkelried’s late grandfather, Irwin Winkelried, a self-made businessman who immigrated to Newark from Poland. He died in 2008.
The pictures’ presence touched his son, Jon Winkelried, Jennifer’s father.
“My dad grew up as a poor kid in Newark, a little bit like a street kid,” he said. “He went off to World War II and went to Rutgers on the GI Bill. Some of the cultural things of Newark which affected him got passed down through the family. Jennifer came up with a thesis that has been meaningful to her and one that other people have been able to touch.”
“My grandfather always told stories about his childhood and instilled his work ethic in me,” said Jennifer. “To do something influenced by him was a really exciting project. If he were here, he would be exceptionally proud.”
“Kvell is not even a word I can describe right now,” said her mother, Abby. “Jennifer chose this topic not because she is religious but because of an internal feeling she has for our people, our culture, and her grandfather; it’s truly spectacular.”
JHS executive director Linda Forgosh, who provided the artifacts and historic expertise, attended the opening ceremony.
“I think she did a great job,” said Forgosh. “In one instant she validated a decade’s worth of work in finding and restoring and salvaging and storing all these photographs. People who don’t know a lot about Newark will come away knowing this was and will be a great city. I am pleased for her and I am pleased for us.”
The exhibit — for which, by the way, Winkelried received an “honors” — will “come home” in mid-June, when it will be on display in the atrium at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.