In 1860, most of Newark was still rural and German was still the mother tongue of much of its Jewish population. There were still only two synagogues in Newark: Temple B’nai Jeshurun (now in Short Hills) and Temple B’nai Abraham (now in Livingston).
That was about to change, after Rabbi Isaac Schwarz took to the pulpit of the nominally Orthodox B’nai Jeshurun to admonish those who were drifting away from the traditions. Both he and the president, Bernhard Hauser, were ousted, and with 18 other members went on to form Oheb Shalom Congregation.
One hundred fifty years later, a synagogue born of an ideological split is celebrating its milestone anniversary with a show of congregational unity. Leaders and clergy are using the occasion to focus on the core values of the synagogue: commitment to Jewish life, social justice, and to leading the Conservative movement.
These values emerged as the congregation itself moved from traditional to Conservative, and occupied three different buildings: one on Prince Street from 1884 until 1911; High Street from 1911 until 1958; and Scotland Road in South Orange from 1958 through the present.
The anniversary, which officially began last March, includes a year of special events, including a celebratory concert in January, a “Jewbilee” in March, and, this weekend, an Anniversary Shabbat featuring New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
The celebrations have been marking two key aspects of the congregation: Its deep roots, and its eagerness to adapt to the times.
Its roots are embodied by Schwarz’s descendants, known to most of the community as the Schechners. Sam Schechner was president at the synagogue’s 75th anniversary in 1935; another Schechner was president when the congregation moved from High Street to South Orange.
Schwarz’s great-grandson, David Schechner, is now the synagogue historian; the current president, Michael Schechner, is his great-great-grandson.
“As my wife says, in our family, you are born to be the president of Oheb Shalom. They bring you home from the hospital and the first question is, ‘When will he be president?’ And the joke is, everyone to the left of the center aisle is a relative,” said David Schechner.
David Schechner grew up at the synagogue, and loves its music and its history. But he loves what it stands for even more. “Oheb Shalom was always to the left of the Conservative movement,” he said, suggesting that it was ahead of its time on issues like civil rights, women’s rights, and social justice.
He offers the example of women in the congregation. “Long before anyone else was talking about it, in the 1940s, the rabbi, Louis Levitsky, went up to a group of ladies and said, ‘I decided that women should have an aliya. I want you to have one.’ And that was it. There was no discussion that lasted 14 years and divided the congregation. And long before that, when the synagogue moved from Prince Street, the Torahs were carried across the street by the women of the congregation.”
Schechner said Oheb was among the seven charter members of what became the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; it was among the first congregations to have a women’s arm, begun in 1880 as the Miriam Frauen Verein der Gemeinde Oheb Shalom, or Miriam Auxiliary, which was among the founding groups of the National Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.
Marching with King
There were world-class speakers at the congregation, from Louis Brandeis to Woodrow Wilson, each coming before reaching the pinnacle of his career. Wilson came in 1911, for the dedication of the High Street building, while he was then governor of New Jersey. “He called and asked what Oheb Shalom means,” said David Schechner. “He was told, ‘Lovers of Peace.’ He ended up talking about what is required of lovers of peace, and basically outlined the League of Nations — 12 years before its creation.”
Its first rabbis were educated in Europe, and they sermonized in German; by 1888 they had their first American-educated rabbi who spoke English from the pulpit. In 1906, they welcomed Dr. Charles Hoffman, a member of the first graduating class of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Sam Weinstock, who joined in 1969 and served as president during the 1980s, remembers Rabbi Alexander Shapiro, “the new young rabbi,” who came to the synagogue in 1972 and stayed until his sudden death 20 years later.
“He had a great personality,” said Weinstock. “He made you so comfortable being involved. In the world we live in, the lives we lead, sometimes religion is not so important. He had a way about him that was so inclusive, it made you comfortable whether you were extremely religious or not.”
Shapiro marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., according to Schechner, and pushed the congregation to focus on issues of need and homelessness nearby.
Weinstock presided over the congregation’s 125th anniversary celebration.
“The common thread for Oheb Shalom is that it always continued to function through the good and the bad: war and recession, high times, ups and downs of the world economy.”
The congregation’s culture of hospitality struck Cantor Erica Lippitz when she came in 1987.
“People not only greeted me at the door but extended a sense of welcome that made me immediately feel a member of the family, not a guest,” she said.
But their engagement in social action helped seal the deal. “The congregation created the Bobrow Food Pantry,” she said. “That and the assistance offered to families from the former Soviet Union were expressions of very deeply held core values, defining values, that are unusual to that degree in traditional congregations, especially at that time.”
Oheb Shalom demonstrated its progressive agenda simply by hiring her — Lippitz was one of the first two women invested as cantors by the Conservative movement. Weinstock recalls Shapiro’s reaction when the committee told Shapiro they were considering hiring her: “If she’s the best candidate, go for it!”
Of course, Lippitz also loves the music of the congregation, and enjoys its sometimes quirky traditions — some High Holy Day melodies are unique to Oheb Shalom. Because the congregation had organ music early in its history, its historic melodies were notated and preserved.
Lippitz credits her immediate predecessor, Henry Rosenblum, who left to become dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at JTS, with setting the current musical tone.
“He had the highest standard for Jewish music. So what I inherited was excellent artistic choice and correct nusah in every service,” she said.
Rosenblum, now cantor at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, formed the Oheb Shalom Chorale, which Lippitz has expanded, and he created the family service. Lippitz introduced the guitar into kabbalat Shabbat services, as well as a new family siddur.
Rabbi Mark Cooper, the current spiritual leader and only the fifth since Dr. Hoffman came to Oheb, arrived in 1998 after a brief period of turmoil following Shapiro’s death.
“It’s such an enduring presence in the community. Part of its legacy is that so many people are able to connect with it because it’s always been here,” he said. “Oheb Shalom has always provided a consistent legacy of living a Jewish life and building community without the searing painful controversy” that sometimes dot the histories of enduring institutions.
“Over the years, this synagogue has really embraced its name — Oheb Shalom. For 15 decades, it’s been a place people can gather together and live Jewish lives together,” said Cooper.
Today, the congregation faces the demographic, denominational, and religious challenges of many synagogues. Membership hovers around 500 families; there were 700 when Weinstock was president. David Schechner worries that as the Jewish community moves west, the congregation may have to move again. A recently completed renovation makes any immediate move unlikely, however, as Weinstock pointed out.
Lippitz expressed anxiety about the lack of knowledge among young Jews, but also about society’s push away from the Jewish value of promoting the good of the larger group over the interests of the individual. She hopes the synagogue will hold onto this ideal.
“If there are great moral challenges in the future, I hope this congregation will be ready to take a courageous leadership role in speaking out for what is decent and right in society,” she said.
But first and foremost, she said, the congregation is about enduring relationships. “The core of belonging to a synagogue community will remain the support needed by every human being in times of joy or sorrow. That’s something that thankfully has been the raison d’etre of this congregation, and I think it always will be.”