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Mementos recall a builder of Union Jewry
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Mementos recall a builder of Union Jewry

Harry Lebau recorded his work in establishing Y and other institutions

With the merger of the MetroWest and Central New Jersey federations into the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Linda Forgosh’s perspective is expanding.

“Our mission statement has changed to include Union and portions of Somerset County,” said the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey (previously “of MetroWest”), which is a beneficiary agency of the GMW federation.

Just a few months after the merger, she received an unexpected gift from a real estate agent in Elizabeth, Ruth Lebau Brewster.

The three-inch-wide loose-leaf binder is a repository of the area’s Jewish history from the 1920s to the 1960s. Cryptically titled “The Perfect Cipher,” it includes typed manuscripts, vintage photographs, and yellowed newspaper clippings compiled by her late father, Harry Lebau.

“We have a lot of people who have given us their memoirs, but none quite like Harry Lebau,” said Forgosh.

Around 1930, Lebau organized a chapter of United Jewish Appeal that became the Eastern Union County Jewish Council, a federation forerunner. He also was a founder of the YM-YWHA chapter that is now known as the YM-YWHA of Union County, on Green Lane in Union.

Seated at her desk in the real estate office in Elizabeth that bears her name, Brewster reminisced about her father, who was born in Brooklyn in 1896.

Although he grew up in an Orthodox family, she said, he became “a secular Jew who attended Conservative synagogues. He was steeped in Jewish knowledge.”

After receiving a master’s degree in biology and agriculture from Syracuse University, he became an officer of the New York State Forestry Service. When he left the army at the end of World War I, Lebau’s career shifted radically.

He went to work at the Hebrew Educational Society in Brooklyn, then held a series of jobs at various Ys, all the while working closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on assisting Jewish newcomers from Eastern Europe.

“Instead of working with a forest of trees, he worked with a forest of people,” said his daughter.

A Fort Dix seder

In 1926, he moved his family to New Jersey, and — although he had no formal training in the field — Lebau called himself “the first Jewish social worker in Elizabeth.”

His first office was a house in Port Elizabeth. Within three years, said Brewster, “they needed a new building. So he launched a capital campaign. But then there was the crash.

“Eventually they raised the money to build a new Y on East Jersey Street in Elizabeth, and it was dedicated in 1930.”

Too old to enlist in World War II, Lebau dedicated many activities at the Y to members of the armed services and workers at nearby defense plants. It housed a branch of the United Service Organization, which provided entertainment and social services to members of the military.

“He kept the USO open 24/7,” said Brewster, “so that factory workers had a place to go when they finished their shifts.”

In 1942, Lebau and his wife, Mary, prepared the components of a Passover seder and dinner at the Y and transported them to 400 soldiers at Fort Dix in Monmouth County. “They cooked in garbage can-sized pots and schlepped all the food to the base,” Brewster recalled. “Then afterward the soldiers got on ships and went overseas.”

Her father turned the Y into what he called a “lyceum,” which brought such luminaries as Clarence Darrow and Eleanor Roosevelt to its podium.

‘Renaissance man’

One unpleasant period in its history happened after the Y sponsored a “Brotherhood Day” for an interfaith and interracial group of young people in February of 1949. “The evening went off without a hitch,” he wrote.

But the following day Lebau was barraged by insulting letters, such as one that said, according to his account, “I sent my daughter to your blasted YMHA to meet Jewish boys and you get them to dance with blasted-blankety-blank Negroes. Take my name off your Y membership roster and never speak to me again.’”

After several more attempts at integration, Lebau gave instructions to his managers to “not accept any Negroes as members.”

“It was a very painful thing,” said his daughter. “It was not what he wanted to do.” As a result, he helped found a chapter of the Urban League. Lebau met William Ashby, the first black social worker in New Jersey, and assisted him in organizing a branch of the civil rights organization in Elizabeth.

“My father told black people, ‘You should have parallel organizations and opportunities for your people the way we have developed them in the Jewish community,’” she said.

The Jewish exodus to the suburbs led Lebau to start fund-raising for a new headquarters on Green Lane in Union. The words “Harry Lebau Jewish Center” are mounted in silver block letters near its entrance.

“But nobody ever refers to it as anything other than the Green Lane Y,” said his daughter. “They obliterated him. It was very hurtful.”

A few weeks after he died in 1974, the Elizabeth Daily Journal saluted Lebau in an editorial, calling him a “renaissance man [who] shaped the YM-YWHA into a vital community force in art, literature, drama, music, recreation, and social services…. Mr. Lebau’s leadership extended far beyond the Jewish community…. He was a man of exceptional gifts, searching for the harmony of life and man and nature.”

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