Historical society marks quiet anniversary
A cache of documents and artifacts helps tell a community’s story
It was an anniversary that slipped by almost unnoticed.
On June 4, 1990, the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey (originally the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest) was organized by three community activists, Ruth Fien, Jerome Fien, and Saul Schwarz.
The three (since deceased) spent many hours trying to convince leaders of what was then United Jewish Federation of MetroWest about the importance of preserving the history and identity of a community with roots in Newark and branches spreading through at least five counties.
“Just like new parents who know how to offer care and concern to their newborn, they set the tone by spreading the word far and near about the importance of having a historical arm in our community,” Howard Kiesel of Short Hills, a past JHS president, wrote in the spring 2015 edition of the organization’s newsletter.
The first big expenditure was for $100,000 to pay for rolling shelves to house their collection in a climate-controlled vault adjacent to the society’s office on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. Among the first items to be stored were minutes of the meetings of the federation, today known as the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“They promised that if community leaders would support their request, they would create a physical repository for the history of the community,” said executive director Linda Forgosh.
Nine years after the society’s founding, Forgosh, who was working part-time in a family business after receiving a master’s degree in American studies, received a call from one of her graduate school professors at Seton Hall University, Edward Shapiro.
“He called me out of the blue and said, ‘Do I have a job for you,’” said Forgosh.
Her first assignment was to “scavenge for documents” relating to the history of the Jews of Morris and Sussex counties.
Today, the JHS, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, has amassed some 650 different collections on synagogues, schools, secular institutions, and prominent people. They have formed the bases of numerous exhibits staged by the society and are regularly accessed by researchers, both professional and amateur.
A small sample of its large collection will remain on display until Oct. 6. The 25th anniversary exhibit was assembled by Sara Schatz, a 16-year-old student at the Jewish Educational Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, as part of a program called “Senior-ITIS (Senior Institute for Teens In-Service),” sponsored by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the federation’s Jewish identity-building organization.
Schatz “loves history and turned out to be a real gem,” Forgosh said.
The oldest item in the archives is a piece of parchment that dates back to 1751. It is a promissory note signed by one Jewish man used as evidence against another in an Essex County lawsuit. “I am not even sure how it came to us,” Forgosh said.
During her 16-year tenure, Forgosh has found eye-catching ways of exhibiting her acquisitions, in the Aidekman atrium, at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, and in other venues.
In an exhibit on the birth of Jewish-owned supermarket chains, she donned a straw hat to pose behind an old-fashioned simulated grocery counter.
She located vintage street signs and high school varsity jackets for an exhibit on Weequahic, Newark’s storied Jewish neighborhood.
“It took a lot of outreach and word-of-mouth,” she said. “When we started on the Newark exhibit we had not one item in the archives except maybe a random high school yearbook or restaurant menu. Now we have boxes and boxes, and it keeps coming in.”
The society has historical records from 46 synagogues in the Greater MetroWest area dating back to 1848, as well as what Forgosh calls “a complete collection” from “the Beth,” what is now Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Among her proudest moments was one that ended a two-and-a-half-year effort to procure the family mementos of Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold and her famous first cousin, Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.
In November 2006, the JHS recreated “One More Night at Elving’s,” the celebrated Yiddish-language theater in Newark. Enlisting local religious-school students and Jewish choral groups, the JHS put on a show that filled the Maurice Levin auditorium at the Cooperman JCC to capacity. “It was the ultimate success story,” said Forgosh.
Plans for the future include an exhibit in November on the life of Dore Schary, the Newark-born movie producer-director and MGM executive who served as national chair of was then B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League.
Together with the Gaelen Gallery at the JCC, the JHS will sponsor an exhibit in December on the once-prominent Jewish hotels in New Jersey.
Forgosh would also like to do an exhibit on Ginsberg and his father and fellow poet, Louis Ginsberg, and another on the children’s books of Ilo Orleans, a Newark attorney and author.
“There isn’t anything we can’t do if it has to do with the study of history and Jewish life in this community,” she said.