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Historical society planning show about NJ synagogues
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Historical society planning show about NJ synagogues

State-wide exhibition would be largest yet for local organizers

In its most ambitious project in its 22-year lifespan, the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest is launching plans for a multimedia exhibition covering synagogues from throughout New Jersey.

The opening date is yet to be determined as the society continues its search for participants, photographs, artifacts, and funding.

Thus far, said JHS executive director Linda Forgosh, 75 of the close to 300 synagogues that were invited have agreed to participate in the exhibit, which will travel through the state and be made available to individual synagogues.

Its official title is “Synagogues of New Jersey: Art, Architecture, Artifacts, and History.”

“When people think about synagogues, New Jersey never makes a splash,” Forgosh said. “But they have been the focal point of Jewish life in the state since the mid-1800s. They are the way Jews grew roots in their communities, and, of course, synagogues are more than just buildings. Their stories are about neighborhoods and how they influenced the neighborhoods where they were located.”

Forgosh has already organized a New Jersey Historians Synagogue Roundtable seeking participation. Representatives of 22 shuls attended the roundtable’s first meeting on March 20 on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, where JHS, an agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, is housed.

“The synagogues are the glue that holds the Jewish people together,” said JHS president Howard Kiesel of Short Hills, as he opened the meeting. “They are the center of Jewish life for most of us. Yes, there is a place for the federations. The federations supply a lot of aid to the community. But the fact is where we go to pray is generally where we feel the most Jewish.”

Synagogue historian Mark Gordon presented an illustrated lecture on New Jersey’s synagogues, beginning with the earliest, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (also known as the Barnert Temple), which began life in Paterson in 1847.

Its original building has been demolished and its first location is now the site of a White Castle hamburger stand. But the congregation is alive and well in Franklin Lakes, said Gordon, an officer of the Greater Newark Conservancy and the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee.

Of the state’s 10 oldest congregations — founded between 1847 and 1882 — three began life in Newark before moving to the suburbs: Temple B’nai Jeshurun (now in Short Hills), Temple B’nai Abraham (Livingston), and Oheb Shalom Congregation (South Orange). Temple Sharey Tefilo in Orange merged with Temple Israel in East Orange to form what is now Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.

Congregation B’nai Israel, whose original home was in Elizabeth, is now located in Millburn. Har Sinai Temple, which began in Trenton, is now in Pennington. Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple remains where it was founded, in New Brunswick. Congregation Adas Emuno moved from Hoboken to Leonia, and Temple Beth El continues operating in Jersey City.

One aspect of the exhibit will be Chabad-Lubavitch, the hasidic movement that builds outreach centers in the suburbs. “It will be a small component because they developed with the later history,” Forgosh told NJJN. “But as they have sprung up in places where there are no synagogues, we cannot ignore them.”

Kiesel appealed to the roundtable group to reach out for wide participation among the state’s synagogues. “We need ideas from you. We need you to go back to your congregations and talk this up….,” he said, also encouraging members to find “angels who might be supportive of the project.”

Those seeking information on the project may contact Forgosh at 973-929-2994 or lforgosh@jhsmw.org.

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