About 25 members of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston gathered for minyan on a recent Sunday morning in April at the headquarters of the Deliverance Evangelistic Center Ministries in Newark.
Despite the crosses on the walls and the large banner hanging across the balcony proclaiming in large red letters, “Christ is the answer,” going to the church was a homecoming for the daveners.
The majestic building on Clinton Avenue was the congregation’s home from 1924, when it was completed, until 1973, when B’nai Abraham moved out of Newark.
“We’re Jews, it’s morning, let’s pray,” said TBA’s Rabbi Clifford Kulwin after a brief welcome.
Sitting in the pews in the 2,000-seat sanctuary, congregants marveled at the stained-glass windows high in the sanctuary depicting biblical scenes that still bear the names of temple notables. The Hebrew phrase “Kumi ori ki va orech uchevod Adonai alayich zarach” (“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and God’s glory has risen upon you”) that is still emblazoned over what was once the Aron Kodesh. The soaring architecture still turns heads toward the domed ceiling where a lavish chandelier hangs from a colorful stained-glass star of David.
Of course, the Torah scrolls and ner tamid have long since been removed to the congregation’s current home. And the building’s grandeur has muted over the passage of time, with peeling paint and water damage reflecting the reality that Newark is not the city it once was.
Addressing the men, women, and children who had traveled to Newark, Kulwin presented a brief look back at TBA’s time in the building and its relationship with the current tenants. Today’s Temple B’nai Abraham maintains a warm relationship with DEC Ministries, which has created a museum in what was once the temple’s gym, describing the history of the synagogue’s tenure there. TBA occasionally holds meetings in its former home, and teens from the congregation visit regularly while participating in tzedaka events in Newark.
The temple men’s club, which planned the event, holds minyan on Sundays about once a month, usually in Livingston.
A lot of magic
“It’s impossible to walk in here having a sense of history and not feel connected,” said Kulwin. He went on to address the distance the congregation has traveled from Newark, and what it takes to come back in a meaningful way. “We are fortunate to spend our lives in something of a gilded ghetto. Let’s be frank. We do not usually see the places we saw driving here. It reminds us of what exists outside our routine. It is sad to see the shape this building is in, and it reminds us that it resides in the Newark of today.” He added, “It is in our power to change things.”
Cantor Murray Simon, who led the congregation briefly just before it left Newark in 1973, was present that Sunday morning and described what it was like presiding at services at B’nai Abraham during an era when, on a typical Friday night, there might be 500-700 people in attendance.
Founded in 1853, Temple B’nai Abraham is one of the three original congregations that began in Newark. After inhabiting several locations in the city, the congregation hired architect Nathan Myers to build the imposing edifice on Clinton and Shanley Avenues. That building — the congregation’s last home in Newark — was completed in 1924 under the leadership of Rabbi Julius Silberfeld. He was succeeded by the noted civil rights leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz. DEC Ministries purchased the building from B’nai Abraham in 1973 and has been there ever since. In 2007, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Arty Podnos, who joined the congregation after its move to Livingston, said he always wanted to see the inside of the historic building. “People who are 100 years old and are still members talk about the old days, and what happened when they were kids growing up,” he said. “And seeing photos of the inside, it piqued my interest.”
Ethan Moskowitz, 11, came with his father, Larry, who said he wanted to share the synagogue’s tradition with his son. “I appreciate the history we have in New Jersey, and the history we leave for others,” he said, while Ethan said he was especially impressed by the domed ceiling.
Jeff Grabelle, president of B’nai Abraham’s men’s club, organized the minyan. He told NJJN he used to pass the building every day on his way to work but did not realize then that it was once the home of his synagogue, which he joined in 2005. This was the first time he’s been inside; he came, he told NJJN, because “I thought it would be neat to come to the old building and see what magic is left. It looks like there’s a lot.”
After the service, everyone adjourned to the former gym turned museum to nosh on bagels and share impressions and memories of B’nai Abraham in days gone by.