Politicians and Jewish leaders paid tribute to the B’nai B’rith Federation House 20 years after it overcame local opposition to become the home for 65 low-income senior citizens in South Orange.
In an outdoor ceremony in the parking lot of the apartment complex on Grove Road, more than 100 guests joined residents and officials of the Jewish Community Housing Corporation in saluting the residence, its staff, and its sponsors at B’nai B’rith.
Arthur Schechner, a founding member of the JCHC and a long-time South Orange resident, outlined the history of the housing complex.
“When we came to do this building, there were loads and loads of wonderful people, but there were some mean-spirited people as well. For whatever the reason, they thought this was not a good idea,” he said.
When he served as JCHC chair in the 1990s, Schechner was approached by Ozzie Lax and Al Gomer, representatives of the South Mountain Lodge of B’nai B’rith. They had received a grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct housing for senior citizens.
The would-be builders “discovered almost immediately that there was some resistance from some of the neighbors,” said Schechner. “It was a small group but they were vocal and they rattled around. We just could not get a consensus. Things got nastier and nastier. But suddenly, two events pushed this thing forward.”
By shifting the building’s location, the planners overcame objections that the building would be too close to the site of a historic landmark. Meanwhile, a fortuitous squall helped convince opponents that the property could weather a “100-year storm.”
“Now, 20 years later, I tip my hat to a town I am very proud to have been a part of. This building gives shelter to all people. This is not a Jewish building; this is a Jewish project that gives shelter to Jews and gentiles alike,” said Schechner.
The JCHC is a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Other speakers included Mark Olshan, director of B’nai B’rith’s International Center for Senior Services; South Orange Village president Alex Torpey; and State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Dist. 27), a South Orange resident and vice chair of the Assembly’s Housing Committee.
“We desperately need more housing such as this facility for our seniors, for our disabled, for our working people so that they can live near where they work,” said Jasey. “I will use this facility as a model to point people toward so that they can see that it only enhances a community and the quality of life of our citizens.”
Lavinia Walker, one of the first 12 residents of Federation House, said she and her neighbors “are truly representative of the world,” noting that they came to South Orange from such diverse places as North Carolina, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, Illinois, and Paris, as well as Brooklyn, Newark, Irvington, and East Orange. Other speakers included Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Dist. 27) and Essex County Freeholder Patricia Sebold.
JCHC board president Jay Murnick of Short Hills served as the event’s master of ceremonies, and the agency’s chief executive officer, Harold Colton-Max, wrapped up the 45-minute celebration.
“We do not see ourselves as simply a landlord,” said Colton-Max. “We are doing what we do to try to repay a debt that can’t possibly be repaid to those who came before us. The people who live here are our mentors, our parents, our friends. It is an honor to be able to do what we do.”