Family reunion was centuries in the making
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Over 265 Schwarzes filled the social hall at Oheb Shalom Congregation on April 29, marking the reunion of family that can trace its roots to Bavaria in the late 1600s.
Everyone in the room could link their lineage back to one of a later generation of 12 siblings, the children of Mendel Schwarz and Bella Adler of Floss, in what is now Germany. Seven of them came to the United States in the mid- to late 1800s.
One of those ancestors was Isaac Schwarz, who in 1860 became the founding rabbi of Oheb Shalom in Newark. (One went to Palestine around that time and four stayed in Germany.)
Many in the room are still members of the South Orange Conservative congregation, which counts many family members among its roster of presidents, including the current one, Michael Schechner. Others over the years have held leadership roles throughout the community, serving, among other posts, as president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, Daughters of Israel nursing home, JESPY House, and other organizations.
There were also a handful of rabbis among the participants, including Jill Hausman of The Actors Temple in New York City, who led the Sheheheyanu prayer, and Elie Kaunfer, a “married-in” who came in through his wife, Lisa Exler. “It’s a whole new take on Jewish peoplehood,” said Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar, a training institute for the independent minyan movement.
Participants also came from far afield, from such places as Illinois, California, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New York. They were adults over 80, children under five, and family members of every age in between.
Their name tags included Roman numerals indicating which siblings they are descended from. More than a few people at the reunion could trace their ancestry back to two or more of the siblings. One couple are fourth cousins who didn’t realize it until the invitations went out for the first reunion, held 20 years ago. The son of those cousins is his own fifth cousin. (Rabbi Isaac Schwarz, the 11th child in his family, married the daughter of his oldest brother.)
Susan Lowy Lubow of Morristown, who did most of the genealogy research and created a family history catalogue available to participants, organized the event along with Paul Schechner of Short Hills. Lubow’s interest was piqued in 1975, when her niece came home with a homework assignment. “It was a family tree project,” said Lubow. “She asked my mother, and I told her to write everything down.” Before she knew it, Lubow had a role of paper 40 feet long stretched across her living room.
The Internet has made subsequent research easier, and she is still finding new branches of the family.
Asked why family members continue to hold prominent roles in the community, Lubow told a story about the family of Isaac Schwarz, from whom most of the local Schwarzes are descended.
“They were always people who wanted to be learned Jewishly,” she said. “One son, Samuel, kept a card file with thousands of cards of talmudic sayings.” Samuel would pay Lubow and other children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews for the privilege of letting him teach them. “Sometimes he would ask someone if they knew the Hebrew alphabet,” she recalled. “We’d always say no because he would pay us to learn it again!”
Isaac’s descendants stayed close through the years, especially those in Lubow’s generation who grew up in Newark. “The Schechners were next door. The Abeles were behind us. We traveled in a pack,” she said. “It was a wonderful comfort having family everywhere. It’s something we all took for granted until we were old enough to realize that it wasn’t that way for everyone.”
Her goal in organizing the reunions, she told a visitor to her Morristown home a few weeks before the gathering, is “to introduce family to family and make sure people stay in touch” with the family history. “A lot of the family doesn’t have Newark as a touchstone,” she said.
At the reunion, even active family members were surprised to discover new branches.
“It’s fun to see people I haven’t seen for a long time,” said Jimmy Schwarz of South Orange, a former president of UJC MetroWest. “What’s scary is I think I know all my relatives, but 70 percent of these people — I have no idea who they are.” He attributes that to the fact that Lubow’s research went all the way back to the 12 siblings, rather than just to Isaac Schwarz.
Other participants, like brothers Richard Esdale of Livingston and Robert Esdale of Newton, Mass., were meeting their kin for the first time. “We don’t know anyone except each other. We came to see who our relatives are,” and to feel a sense of connection, Richard said.
At the last reunion, there were some big surprises, according to David Schechner of South Orange, one of the family elders. “Last time people were saying, What are you doing here? I’m a cousin. People were doing business with each other for 30 or 40 years and did not know they were related until they walked in! This time around, they are renewing acquaintances, but no one is shocked.”
As they milled around, there was plenty of hugging and kissing and figuring out blood lines.
A group of members of the 20-something generation stood together, representing branches of the family from New Jersey, New York, and Colorado.
“The last time I was here I was wearing a bowtie and sitting in my father’s lap,” said Daniel Schechner, 23, of Short Hills. “It’s very cool to think to think every 20 years we all show up, from all 12 branches of the family. Not many families do that.”