Couple supports special school with Jewish roots

Couple supports special school with Jewish roots

Retired Livingston endodontist Kenneth Blumberg has been elected to the board of trustees of The Children’s Institute in Verona, an agency that, like Blumberg and his wife Monica, has strong roots in the Jewish community.

Started in 1923 as the Newark-based Hebrew Orphanage and Sheltering Home as an Orthodox institution, the now nondenominational Children’s Institute provides special education services for students on the autism spectrum and with related disabilities.

The Verona-based school, whose students range from age three to 21, plans to expand its operations to a newly renovated building in Livingston this fall. “What attracted me to the institute was that it was started as a Jewish settlement house,” Ken Blumberg said in an interview. “That immediately piqued my interest.”

Originally located on Lincoln Avenue in north Newark, the home was founded by Orthodox women to serve orphaned or abandoned Jewish children. According to the late Nat Bodian, an amateur historian who contributed to the “Old Newark” website, the children were served three kosher meals a day and attended a nearby elementary school. Bodian recalled doing the publicity for the orphanage’s annual dinner-dance, which attracted well-known Jewish entertainers, including Red Buttons, Milton Berle, and Fanny Brice. Among the children raised there was Allen Klein, who would grow up to manage business affairs for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

In 1963, the orphanage was converted into a nonsectarian school and changed its name to The Children’s Institute. It moved to Verona in 1999.

Active at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, the Blumbergs say their support for the school is an acknowledgement of their Jewish identity and something larger as well.

“It is not only that the institute is helping Jewish kids; it is helping all kids,” said Monica, a retired algebra teacher who worked in the Caldwell school system. “I come from a background where if non-Jews had not helped us, I wouldn’t be around.”

Born Monika Reich in December 1942, she is believed to be the youngest Jewish person to survive the Holocaust in Berlin. Two weeks after she was born, her family went underground. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Reich family sailed on a United States Merchant Marine ship that was ferrying refugees to America.

A weekly reminder of that legacy is a Torah scroll, saved by her father, that the family donated to B’nai Abraham (see sidebar).

The Children’s Institute has outgrown its Verona facility, so its 60-80 high school students will transfer to a second location being readied at the Regent Street office complex on Route 10 in Livingston behind the Westminster Hotel.

A second program at the new center will provide educational and training services for 30 post-high school young adults.

“The goal of our programs is to return as many of our students as possible to mainstream schools, but some students will never get there,” said Ann Dassing, the institute’s public information officer. Still, she said, it is a place of miracles. “They are not the kind of miracles like someone getting cured of cancer, but it is a child who maybe is not verbal who is able to say one word, then two words. That is the essence of what goes on here, and that is why we are here after 50 years.”

At the institute, added Monica, students “learn life skills. Some of them are not ready to go out in the world; some of them are autistic. They might be very bright, but they still need life skills.”

The institute’s capital campaign is seeking to raise $2 million, and Kenneth is helping in the plans for a benefit golf tournament on Monday, Sept. 10, at the Plainfield Country Club to assist in reaching that goal.

“My object is to get the word out that we have one of the finest schools in the area for helping, teaching, and providing a future for these people,” he said.

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