The rich legacy of Newark’s historic synagogues will be on display for all to see when an exhibit sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey opens on the Aidekman campus in Whippany on Thursday, May 18.
The product of more than two years of diligent research and planning by four people deeply interested in local Jewish heritage, “The Synagogues of Newark: Where We Gathered and Prayed, Studied and Celebrated” will run through Aug. 8.
In the 1940s, Newark was the city with the fourth-largest Jewish population in the United States, the largest in the state of New Jersey.
The exhibit charts the history of the synagogues, their religious and lay leaders, significant events, and the architectural design of their buildings. It begins with the first of Newark’s dozens of synagogues — Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, which opened its doors on Washington Street in 1848 and is now in Short Hills — and runs through the current era.
Today, Newark is home to only three functioning synagogues. The oldest — and the oldest that is operational in the state — is Congregation Ahavas Sholom, which started in 1905 and also houses the Jewish Museum of New Jersey. Congregation Mount Sinai, situated in a basement room in the Ivy Hill Park Apartments, has been led by Chabad Rabbi Samuel Bogomilsky since 1964. It was created to serve the influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union who were settling in the Ivy Hill neighborhood, adjacent to South Orange.
The third congregation is the largely African-American Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in the Ironbound section of Newark, which declined to participate in the exhibit.
Three members of Ahavas Sholom — Max Herman and Phil Yourish, president and vice president/treasurer, respectively, of the museum, and Harold Kravis, the shul’s assistant gabbai — began planning the exhibit in 2014 after the late Newark historian Clement Price, a Rutgers University professor who was organizing the city’s 350th anniversary celebration in 2016, asked for their help in creating an exhibit of the city’s synagogues and Jewish history as part of the celebration.
A fourth Ahavas Sholom member, Tim Lee, joined later to add his skills as a photographer to their enterprise.
Then, Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, located on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus, added her expertise and the voluminous JHS archives to the effort.
Work on the exhibit began in earnest in May 2016. At first, the researchers assumed there had been some 30 synagogues in Newark during its Jewish heyday. But, they discovered, “there were many more,” said Herman.
“We figure there were about 50 shuls,” Yourish interjected.
“Of all three flavors,” added Forgosh.
“We had to do a lot of triage because there were so many,” said Herman. “We found little shtiebels everywhere.” Many of them lacked any historical records.
So the organizers decided to focus on the synagogues that had enough material available for adequate presentations, while also having some fun with their project, said Herman. “We gave some of the displays cheeky titles, like ‘Mergers and Acquisitions.’” Among the most prominent of the congregations that resulted from synagogues’ joining together is Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, now located in West Orange, which had its roots in eight Orthodox congregations.
Another exhibit category, “Weequahic Shuls,” features the houses of worship that were in that iconic Jewish area of the city.
Getting the information, however, often required some deep digging.
“The little synagogues were much more obscure,” Yourish said. “The people who attended those synagogues and would have had original knowledge of what we were looking for had already passed away, so we had to put a lot of information together from many different places.”
Much of the research was done in the JHS, where Yourish and Herman came with a portable scanner to copy multitudes of old photographs and yellowed documents from the society’s archives. They also partnered with the Newark Public Library and the New Jersey Historical Society to obtain additional artifacts.
Kravis, who spends much time researching Jewish genealogy, helped by surfing the Internet. “Harold got us going,” said Herman. “He identified sons, daughters, and grandchildren of rabbis so we could go to their homes and do oral histories on audio and video.”
The exhibit made its debut in November at the Jewish Museum of New Jersey (located on the second floor of Ahavas Sholom) as part of the Newark anniversary celebration and closed there on Feb. 15. It will run in the atrium of the Aidekman campus until Aug. 8.
Even after its opening day, “The Synagogues of Newark” will remain a work in progress. Yourish is appealing to those who visit to let him know — by writing him at firstname.lastname@example.org — if they see any errors or have new information.
The organizers believe that even those with no family or synagogue connection to the city will appreciate what they will glean from the exhibit: “a broader picture of Newark’s Jewish community back in the day,” Herman said.
Groups and individuals may call Forgosh for information about guided exhibit tours at 973-929-2994.