With hopes that the “Jewish community is going to look at this place and see their connection with it,” a Newark pastor led a New Jersey Jewish News reporter on a sad tour of her church’s crumbling interior.
Between its opening in 1924 and its sale in 1972, the stately round-domed and pillared edifice in Newark, designed by city architect Nathan Myers, was Temple B’nai Abraham, one of the major synagogues in New Jersey’s largest city.
Since 1972, when the congregation moved to Livingston, the historic building on the corner of Clinton Avenue and South 10th Street has served as a house of worship of a different stripe: most recently the Deliverance Evangelistic Center, an African-American Protestant church, whose existence is now in jeopardy.
Its pastor, Dawn Nichol, estimates that it will cost $3 million to fix up the building’s run-down infrastructure.
As she toured the premises with NJJN on June 6, she detailed a litany of structural problems in bad need of repair.
“There has been no electricity for several years. The slate roof has been a problem since the temple was built,” she said.
The dome above the sanctuary, topped with a stained-glass star of David, “needs to be patched up from time to time,” she said. “The plumbing is ancient, and the only way we can find out where to repair piping is when one part bursts. A lot of walls need to be sheet-rocked. You can see cracks in the ceiling that need plastering. The bathroom facilities in the main sanctuary totally need repair.”
At least one inch of water covers the floor in the basement, and “to keep it from flooding we use a generator to keep sump pumps going.
“It is an astronomical amount of money that is going to be needed,” Nichol said.
As she stood in the sanctuary — its walls covered with vast patches of peeling paint, large chunks of crumbling plaster dotting the floor, and the pungent smell of mold permeating the room — Nichol said that despite the sorry state of the building, “every time I enter this sanctuary I feel centered and I feel safe. It is not in great shape, but because of the teachings and the fellowship and the life lessons I have learned here, this is a safe haven.
“Every person who walks through these doors is awed, despite all of the deterioration. They say, ‘Wow. This is so beautiful.’ They feel a spiritual connection when they enter.”
That connection dates back to its days as a synagogue that began as Orthodox in the mid-19th century, became Conservative, and is now a “traditional progressive” congregation in Livingston, operating independently of the organized streams of Judaism.
In June 1939, the Berlin-born Rabbi Joachim Prinz, an outspoken foe of the Nazis who fled Germany, became its religious leader. In the years to come he dedicated himself with equal fervor to the American civil rights movement, and invited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to address his congregation on Jan. 17, 1963.
Eight months later, Prinz introduced King to a crowd of 250,000 at the March on Washington, where the civil rights leader delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Nichol said those moments and that legacy still resonate with her and the 30 senior citizens who regularly attend the church’s Sunday services, held in a meeting room serving as a worship space instead of the severely damaged sanctuary. As she stood near a showcase filled with memorabilia from the B’nai Abraham era, Nichol said she and her congregants feel a strong connection with their church’s Jewish heritage.
“As a congregation we abide by the scriptures, and we have been commissioned to always pray for the Israelites and the Jewish people,” she said. “With that being said, I know the Jewish community is going to look at this place and see their connection with it. It is a landmark — spiritually, culturally, historically, and educationally.
“I think it will be recognized that we are still here standing and that means a lot to people of both faiths.”
She said her congregants “are working collectively to keep things standing as best as we possibly can.”
The building was added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 2007. In May it was named one of the Top 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites by Preservation New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to protecting and promoting New Jersey’s historic resources, communities, and landscapes.”
But neither listing guarantees the church’s survival.
Asked what might happen if her congregation cannot raise the money to repair their historic house of worship, Nichol said, “I’m not thinking like that. This place has been consecrated as holy ground on many levels, so I have no doubt it is going to be OK.”
In addition to its current role as a church, Nichol said she envisions the building’s becoming an interfaith community center so that people beyond her congregation could take advantage of its classrooms, meeting spaces — and the swimming pool in its basement.
She said she is hoping for “an interfaith effort” to save the building and is “reaching out to philanthropists and people who have a heart and understanding for the magnitude of buildings which offer so much to the community, as well as their historical meaning.
“But we need help,” she said.
In a June 13 e-mail, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, who has been religious leader at Temple B’nai Abraham since 1999, told NJJN, “The iconic building on Clinton Avenue was our home for half a century, and we are saddened by the hard times into which it has fallen. We have already been in touch with the leadership of the Deliverance Evangelistic Center to see if there are resources we can help them secure and strategies we can help them explore to maintain the glory of this Newark landmark.”
If and when the temple is restored, Nichol said, she hopes to expand its outreach to a broader community than the worshipers who currently attend its Sunday services.
“We want to open this facility to schools, because it is mandatory that we talk about the Holocaust and slavery and civil rights and segregation and genocide so we can be aware of them, so we don’t repeat them,” Nichol said.
“This place would be very instrumental” in helping spread those messages,” she said. “It is a living monument. It tells a story. The walls speak.”