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Jewish remains of the day

Teachers connect Newark’s history with once-vibrant life in Eastern Europe

Teachers from Newark public schools with Ilyse Shainbrown, third from right, on a trip for educators to Jewish sites in Eastern Europe. Photos courtesy Ilyse Shainbrown 
Teachers from Newark public schools with Ilyse Shainbrown, third from right, on a trip for educators to Jewish sites in Eastern Europe. Photos courtesy Ilyse Shainbrown 

This Eastern European journey — with five Newark school teachers and one community professional from the Jewish Federation of MetroWest New Jersey — took place almost 50 years to the day after the city of Newark was torn apart with riots. That tumultuous chapter in Newark’s history led to a decades-long separation between the Jewish community and the city of its roots. We have lived in two different worlds — distant not in miles, but in every other way.

Today, thanks to the vision and generosity of Paula and Jerry Gottesman of Morristown, a leading philanthropic family in our community with long-time personal and business ties to Newark, we are beginning to rekindle those connections in very real ways. 

During the first year of this Greater MetroWest/City of Newark pilot programs (2016-2017), 2,300 students and 90 teachers from 20 Newark schools took part in one of our programs, which included Holocaust education; a model seder bringing together middle schoolers from Newark schools and Greater MetroWest day schools; a trip to the U.S. Holocaust museum and civil rights sites in Washington, D.C.; and more. 

In 2017 and 2018, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest expects to increase those numbers to 4,000 students and 120 teachers in 30 Newark schools. 

The relationship between the Jewish community and the city of Newark will never be what it was nor does it have to remain status quo. New ties can be formed, new relationships and commonalities realized, and a new dynamic can begin to emerge.

Often, when I tell people what I do, they ask me the same question: Why Newark? Since starting in September as the Gottesman Fellow, the Jewish Cultural and Education Liaison to Newark, and especially while I participated in July in the Centropa Summer Academy, a Holocaust training trip to Europe for teachers, I’ve constantly been trying to answer it. (Centropa, the trip organizer, is a Jewish institute based in Vienna, Austria, that is dedicated to preserving 20th-century Jewish family stories and photos from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans and disseminating these stories through films, books, and exhibitions.) 

The question comes from different directions. Those in the Jewish community often ask why we should teach about the Holocaust and the Jews to the non-Jews of Newark. And equally as often, I get the same question from the non-Jews in Newark. 

It is no secret that the once-vibrant Jewish community in Newark has long since abandoned the city. A community that once had almost 75,000 Jewish residents and 50 synagogues has dwindled to fewer than 25 people and one remaining synagogue. There really is nothing left of Newark’s Jewish community so it’s logical for people to wonder why we should rebuild this connection.

Yet, as I journeyed July 3-12 with five Newark public school teachers to Budapest and Belgrade learning about the Jewish communities that once thrived in these areas, along with hearing from members of their diminished communities today, I could not help but see the parallels. The situations are not perfectly analogous — Jews were not forced to leave Newark, and of course, they were not victims of the greatest genocide in history ¬— but they are similar in that the rich Jewish history in these cities has long since disappeared. Moreover, few people in Newark, Budapest, and Belgrade, and even many Jews who live in the surrounding areas, know much, if anything at all, about the thriving Jewish communities that once existed in these respective cities.

But I was so moved and impressed with the teachers during the week of this educational trip, as each of them saw ways in which what they were seeing in Europe was relevant to their students back in Newark. Why Newark? Why this project? They were able to really answer the questions. 

One teacher, inspired by an exhibit about influential Jews of the community in Budapest, hopes to have his students create their own exhibit on the Jews of Newark. Another teacher, who works closely with the Jewish cemeteries of Newark, was moved by a visit to the Sephardic Jewish Cemetery of Belgrade. The cemetery itself, much like the cemeteries in Newark, is in need of repairs. Using a great number of photos she took of the cemetery, as well as with a Centropa film about a Jewish family in Belgrade, she is working on a lesson that compares Belgrade’s Jewish history with that of the city of Newark. She is also planning to arrange for her students to do some type of community service with the cemeteries in Newark.

The most powerful connection though, may have come on our long day of travel between Budapest and Belgrade. On the way, we stopped in the small, now-Serbian, once-Hungarian city of Subotica. There we were welcomed into the tiny — only about 250 members — Jewish community for an incredible Shabbat lunch. Then, to our surprise, we were given hard hats and entered a gorgeous synagogue, originally inaugurated in 1901, according to JewishVirtualLibrary.org, and currently undergoing a massive renovation. 

Our guide, a community member, explained the story of the once-vibrant Jewish life in Subotica and the building of this grand synagogue. Of the roughly 6,000 Jews, only 10 percent survived the war, and the majority never returned. However, those that remain are active and passionate, and they sought the aid of the Hungarian and Serbian governments to raise the funds they desperately needed for the restoration. After many years, the governments capitulated.

What truly amazed all of us though, were the plans for the synagogue. With only 250 members, the community knows that they do not need, nor can they sustain, this immense, beautiful building. So together with the city and national government, they drew up plans for a community cultural arts center to be located within the synagogue. The center will include a permanent exhibition on the Jewish population of Subotica, including what transpired during the Holocaust. There will be an additional space for a traveling art or historical exhibition and the synagogue will also host concerts, shows, and community-wide events. The synagogue will host services for the High Holy Days, though all other services will continue in the smaller space they currently utilize. It was truly wonderful to see and hear what Jews and non-Jews are doing together to preserve a piece of their shared past.

That evening, when we arrived in Belgrade, I met with all five teachers, and we agreed that something like this could be done in Newark. There are many old synagogues in Newark in need of restoration. How amazing would it be if the Jewish community in Greater MetroWest could come together with the city of Newark and work to create an amazing space for everyone? We realize that this would be a long-term project, and not a simple one at that. Yet, having seen the incredible story of Subotica unfolding before our eyes, we could not help but feel inspired to connect it to our own community.

Throughout the entire trip, I was struck by the passion in these teachers from the Newark public schools, how they were determined to teach their students, none of whom are Jewish and neither are they, about the Holocaust and the lost Jewish communities of Europe. Now they will take those lessons to their classrooms and simultaneously teach their students about the history of their city and an atrocity that took place far away and generations ago. 

Why Newark? That’s why.

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