The Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest NJ celebrated its own past last week at a gala honoring one of its founding board members, Norbert Gaelen.
Gaelen, who headed the O. Berk Company in his native Newark, was the honoree at the society’s Lasting Impressions Gala, held May 17 at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston.
JHS president Howard Kiesel of Short Hills presented Gaelen with a plaque recognizing his role as a founder and major benefactor of the JHS, which documents the history of Jews in Newark and surrounding communities.
“History is such an important part of who we are,” said Kiesel. “There is a saying that we make a living with what we get; we make a life with what we give. Norbert exemplifies that saying.”
Gaelen said he was lured into helping create the society by the late Ruth Fien, another Newark native who was the driving force behind the society’s founding in 1990.
Fien had told him of “a basement full of various Newark agency records, and said there should be a repository for them,” Gaelen recalled. “That idea fostered a need for a home so they would not be lost for future generations.”
“This honor tonight makes me feel very special,” added Gaelen, a resident of Short Hills who, along with his wife Audrey, supports numerous local Jewish institutions, including the art gallery spaces at the Aidekman campus in Whippany and the West Orange JCC.
The evening’s guest speaker, broadcaster Steve Adubato, also spoke about the need to preserve the history of Newark, where he too was born and raised.
Adubato, a Star-Ledger columnist and host on NJN public television, spoke of growing up in a poor section of the city’s North Ward, where he had little knowledge of the Jewish community in Newark’s famed Weequahic neighborhood.
“I never made it over to the Weequahic section because we didn’t know how to get there. It was like a different place to us,” he said. “When I was reading Philip Roth I said, ‘Why don’t we, the Italians, have a Philip Roth?’”
Recalling his childhood, Adubato said “my mother would take me on the #27 bus to get downtown. It was a positive place. There was no Willowbrook Mall — that was a good thing.”
But like the Jews who lived in Newark until the mid-1960s, Adubato said, his life “was in many ways impacted by the 1967 riots,” which erupted when he was nine years old. “It scared the hell out of me.”
In the wake of the riots — fueled by the city’s racial tensions — “all of a sudden our neighbors moved,” said Adubato. “They moved to Verona. They moved to Morris County. And I didn’t even know if that was part of the state of New Jersey. It was known as ‘white flight,’ but my father, who grew up in Newark, wasn’t going anywhere.”
Adubato, whose father, Steve Adubato Sr., remains a force as a Democratic power broker in the city’s North Ward, reminded his audience that Newark should not be defined by its setbacks.
“The reality is there are at least two Newarks — one downtown, where there is money, there are the arts, there is culture, there is a sense of vitality and cops everywhere, and very few terrible things happen,” he said. “There is another part of the city — in the South Ward and the North Ward and the Central Ward. That is one that the kids I deal with every day have to live in,” referring to the work of his “Stand & Deliver” project, which trains inner-city youth in communication skills.
“Newark is a beautiful place with some incredible history,” he added. “I hope my children, who are likely never to live in Newark, will continue to hear those stories and understand why the neighborhood where their grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in…is important.”
Adubato lamented that Newark’s Italian-American community does not have its own society devoted to their history in the city.
“When I look at the Jewish Historical Society and the work you are doing, I think, ‘My God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a repository like that,’” he said.