An extraordinary event will soon take place in Freehold, and I am proud to say that my husband, Simon Zelingher, and I are part of the team that is making it happen.
Next month the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County will launch a new permanent exhibit, “Three Centuries of Growth & Change: A History of the Jews of Monmouth County.” This multi-media presentation, 10 years in the making, tells a fascinating story: how the Jewish community developed from one Sephardi Jew peddling his wares in Monmouth County in the early 1700s into a diverse community of Jews with more than 40 synagogues and many communal institutions.
Our involvement began three years ago when Simon volunteered to serve as a museum docent for a few hours each week after retiring from his successful career in telecommunications management. He was quickly recruited to work on an important project: Make the permanent exhibit happen! Simon brought to the task his project management skills and a love for Jewish history.
It did not take long for the museum to enlist my help with this massive project and draw on my background in design and technology; I became chair of the exhibits committee. There were two professionals — a curator and an exhibit designer — and a team of dedicated volunteers who gave of their time and talents. Others provided funding, enabling the exhibit to move forward.
Monmouth County’s Jewish history is unique, and the exhibit presents a wonderful collage of interesting stories, such as the “Jewish Newport” at the Jersey Shore where the super-wealthy German Jews from New York City vacationed between 1870 and 1920. The country’s first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, practiced for 25 years at Monmouth Reform Temple.
The town of Roosevelt — originally Jersey Homesteads — was established during the 1930s as part of the New Deal, chiefly to resettle Jewish garment workers. It later became an artists’ colony, and among its illustrious inhabitants were Ben Shahn and Jacob Landau. Writer Norman Mailer and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky were born in Monmouth County.
Many Monmouth stories resonate with me. My house was built by children of Holocaust survivors. The parents, Joel and Frances Opatut, settled in Freehold after the war and became chicken farmers. It was through our move into our house on Opatut Court we discovered Bezalel Hebrew Day School, supported by the Opatut family, that our children attended.
Another story — about the Syrian community in the shore towns of the county, where my daughter, her husband, and children live year-round — has a personal connection. Following World War II, Jews originally from Syria who had settled in in Brooklyn began summering in Bradley Beach. By the 1960s, members of the community were living year-round in Deal and Ocean Township. Now there are more than nine Syrian Orthodox synagogues, as well as day schools and mikvahs, making this community a dynamic and growing Jewish presence in the county.
Another story close to us is that of Jewish outreach organizations, since my husband and I are involved with Chabad and Torah Links. These religious institutions are featured in the exhibit along with all the other synagogues in Monmouth, which include Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox denominations.
Every one of us will relate to the exhibit whether we live in Monmouth or elsewhere — it will resonate with anyone whose family was part of the American immigrant experience, with those who have memories of vacationing down the shore, or those who have been involved with building a new community or synagogue.
I am thrilled that all my grandchildren will be able to visit the museum for years to come and admire the magnificent exhibit their grandparents were involved in creating. They will learn how the Jewish community of Monmouth started and how it grew and developed, and they will come to understand how their synagogue, their school, and their community are part of the dynamic 300-year-old history of Jewish Monmouth.
And there is another important message here: Life does continue after retirement. I applaud those who volunteer and use the skills they acquired in their careers toward work for the greater good, whether it’s within the museum, in the county, or on the national level.