Moments before lighting a candle on the Newark City Hall Hanukka menora, Mayor Ras Baraka spoke of the vital role the Jewish community played in his city’s past, and asserted that it is still important to its present and future.
Speaking on the third night of the holiday, Dec. 8, in the building’s rotunda, Baraka told the 50 people in his largely Jewish audience that when he was born in 1969 there were more than 100,000 Jews in the city of Newark.
“The number has of course dwindled since then,” he said, “but the impact is still felt, and those who are still around continue to have a serious, committed relationship to this community and to this city, and those who have left still have a serious, committed relationship to this city and this community.
“Over and over again it surprises me that the Jewish community is connected to the development and the progress of this city since then and is still here today.”
Baraka noted that he grew up down the block from the original home of Temple B’nai Abraham (now in Livingston), whose religious leader for close to four decades was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the refugee from Nazi Germany who became an outspoken civil rights activist. Baraka spoke of Prinz and his proximity to his late father, poet and black nationalist Amiri Baraka.
Although the mayor did not refer to his father’s sometimes contentious relationship with members of the Jewish community, he said, “God is very mysterious in that my father and his activism would be reared on the block that Rabbi Prinz was on and [that Prinz] tried to get the Jewish community heavily involved in the civil rights movement in this city and around the country.”
Prinz, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., introduced the civil rights leader at the 1963 March in Washington.
Prinz “probably had the second-best speech in the March on Washington next to Martin Luther King,” said the mayor. “I don’t think that’s by accident; I think there is an inextricable relationship — a tie between our communities here in this city that cannot be broken by space or time or generations….
“The histories we share in this country and this world are similar for very specific and very real reasons, and the things that we have in common go beyond the differences that many people try to provoke and delineate,” Baraka said.
Newark, he said, “has the opportunity to not just bridge that gap economically but socially and spiritually, which is more important than anything else.”
The menora-lighting ceremony on the City Hall lawn was presided over by Rabbi Levi Block of Newark’s Chabad Torah Center. The Newark Boys Chorus School Apprentice Choir performed at the event, and Newark developer Miles Berger presented Baraka with a photograph of President John F. Kennedy speaking on the City Hall Steps on Oct. 12, 1962.