For 10 years, the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County has been shining a light on the local Jewish past. From its home on the second floor of the 19th-century Levi Solomon barn in Freehold, the museum has mounted a string of exhibits, performances, lectures, films, and children’s activities.
On Sunday, April 10, it will take a slight detour and focus instead on its own history as an institution.
A 10th anniversary brunch, to be held at the Battleground Country Club in Manalapan, will celebrate the museum’s founding and achievements. The event will feature a silent auction, the singing of Cantor Gabrielle Clissold of Monmouth Reform Temple, and a performance by local entertainer Vic Schioppo.
Seventeen people who played key roles in the organization over the years will receive honors.
“These are the people who were the pioneers, the visionaries who saw the need and seized the opportunity to create a museum that would link the past with the present in a bright, entertaining fashion,” said Phyllis Chancy Solomon of Marlboro, cochair of the anniversary event.
“I’ve always considered the museum a precious jewel of the county’s Jewish community,” said Helene Cohen of Manalapan, the other co-chair. “It’s enabled us to hold on to our legacy not merely through education, but by instilling respect for earlier generations of Jews who lived here.”
The idea for a museum sprang up, almost accidentally, out of a friendship between Jean Klerman and Cheryl Ann “Cookie” Cook, who had worked together at the Monmouth County Library. Upon her retirement from the library, Klerman said, she presented a lecture on local Jews in the 18th century to the Freehold Township Heritage Society, a pet project of Cook’s.
A member of the audience, Bernard “Nardie” Hochberg, was owner of Millhurst Mills, developer of the Mounts Corner Shopping Center on Route 537 and owner of the Levi Solomon barn, which was constructed around 1860.
The barn building was situated across the road from the shopping center site, on land adjacent to the current location of Moore’s Tavern, which dates to 1787. Cook proposed the barn’s top floor as a space for displaying some old artifacts used by Jewish farm families in the 1800s (Levi Solomon was not a practicing Jew, but he did have a Jewish father).
Klerman and Charlotte Kruman, both of whom will be honored at the April 10 brunch, saw a much greater opportunity. In 2005, together with several others on the honoree list, they formed a committee to create a museum that would celebrate all Jewish history in Monmouth County.
Michael Berman, another honoree, was already a member of the Freehold Township Historic Preservation Commission. He acted as liaison between the two groups.
“There were numerous challenges to overcome,” said Berman, remembering the museum’s earliest days. “We had 3,000 square feet of emptiness in the hayloft. We had to convert it into a space that would be flexible enough to support exhibits, performances, and administrative offices. We needed a stage and indoor plumbing; a sophisticated lighting, sound, and projection system; an elevator to accommodate elderly and infirm visitors; and a grand piano.
“In time, it all came together.”
Many of the negotiations were with Ronardi Enterprises, in which Hochberg, another honoree, is a principal. The developer is credited with donating the building to the museum as well as paying to have the structure moved to its present site in the northwest corner of the shopping center.
Following its grand opening in 2008, the museum embarked on an ambitious programming campaign. Among its successes were an oral history project about Jewish war veterans, a long-running exhibition about Jewish farms and farmers in the area — most now gone — and a detailed look at the town of Roosevelt (originally known as Jersey Homesteads), which was an experimental project supported by the federal government under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On April 10, honorees, in addition to Cohen, Klerman, Kruman, Berman, and Hochberg, will include Gloria Berman, Gary Cohen, Mel Druin, Linda Friedman, Gloria Landy, Sid Marshall, Barbara Michaels, Rabbi Sally Priesand, Elaine Ruda, Carol Sills, Charles Sills, and Rabbi Brooks Susman.