Reporter’s Notebook: Newark’s Jewish roots becoming history

Reporter’s Notebook: Newark’s Jewish roots becoming history

50 years after riots, suburban ties to city have all but disappeared

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

This building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Newark was home to Congregation Oheb Shalom from 1911 until the community moved to South Orange in 1958.
This building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Newark was home to Congregation Oheb Shalom from 1911 until the community moved to South Orange in 1958.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Newark rebellion, the local Jewish community did…nothing. Despite the community’s profound connection to the city, there was no official ceremony by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest NJ, or local synagogues.

Of course, there was nothing essentially Jewish about Newark by the time of the riots in July 1967. Most of the community had already moved to the suburbs, an exodus that had started by World War I and proceeded in earnest in the years following World War II. 

And yet so much of the community’s history is tied to Newark, and the city grew the seeds of important Jewish organizations. There are many local businesses that trace their roots to Newark, like Sam’s Clothing and Crystal Plaza, now both in Livingston. Newark Jews created the Conference of Jewish Charities, the forerunner of the federation, in 1923. The Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange, then called the Y, started in Newark. At least three major area synagogues are direct transplants from Newark: Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, and Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange; others are amalgamations from mergers of Newark congregations whose names reflect their long history, like Ahawas Achim Bnai Jacob and David in West Orange. 

Regarding the absence of a half-century commemoration, Newark native Sanford Jaffe, now of Livingston, said, “It’s a different generation now. The people in a position to do that kind of thing are a generation that did not live though it and are not as conscious.” Jaffe was executive director of the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorders in New Jersey, tasked with investigating the causes of riots in Newark and Plainfield, and presenting recommendations to the governor and state legislature. He is the codirector of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution in Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. 

There was a time when any random gathering of Jews in the MetroWest area reflexively seemed to include references to Weequahic High School or the Clinton Hill area, to the old Bamberger’s and to Hahne’s. Even if you were a transplant from some other place, Newark was the inescapable gravity of living in the Essex County Jewish community.

With the passage of time, the local emotional connection to Newark has cooled. Asked what went into the decision not to mark the moment, Mark Gordon, chief marketing officer at the federation, told NJJN, “It’s not something on the tip of everyone’s tongue.” He added, “Nobody was saying, ‘We have to do that.’”  

That wasn’t the case 10 years ago, when three organizations — United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, as the Federation was then called, the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, and The New Jersey Historical Society — came together to sponsor a panel discussion entitled “40 years after: The Newark Riots and The Jewish Community.” 

But the transition from a generation of Jewish leaders who grew up in Newark to a generation who have not has taken its toll.

In fact, the connection has diminished to the point that philanthropist and Newark native Jerome Gottesman, one of the speakers at the 40th anniversary panel, has endowed a professional position at the federation to focus on maintaining the relationship to Newark. Ilyse Muser Shainbrown is the first Gottesman Fellow, Jewish Cultural and Educational Liaison to Newark for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest N.J. Announcing the appointment in 2016, federation CEO Dov Ben-Shimon wrote that the position was created “to commemorate, celebrate, and educate students and adults in Newark about the city’s rich Jewish heritage.” 

In the mid-1800s, Jews began arriving in Newark in great numbers. The apex of the Jewish community came in the 1940s, when there were about 56,000 Jews and more than 40 synagogues in the area. 

But the riots, sparked on July 12, 1967, left 26 people dead and 700 injured. There was a sense of loss in the Jewish community at the time, for the Jewish-owned businesses that suffered damage. As JTA reported on July 18, 1967, after the riots ended, “Many Jewish-owned stores were among the targets of looting and arson during the three days of racial violence in Newark.”

The riots are largely considered to be the death knell of the Jewish community. Most of the institutions that had remained in Newark until then left. Congregation Oheb Shalom moved to South Orange in 1958, and B’nai Jeshurun left Newark in 1968. By 1972 there were just 6,000 Jews still in Newark, out of about 100,000 in Essex County. Bnai Abraham, then led by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, was among the last holdouts, departing in 1973.  

Today there are two functioning synagogues in Newark: Congregation Ahavas Sholom and Congregation Mount Sinai, located in a basement room in the Ivy Hill Park Apartments. 

Rather than bemoaning its history, Jaffe believes the Jewish community, and society in general, ought to learn from that era. He views the anniversary, and the lack of historical coverage, as a missed opportunity to delve into race relations. “I’d like to see more history, some analysis, more in depth,” he said. “These are issues that still concern us. It does not take a rocket scientist to see the issues…are still with us we are still trying to solve them.”

He thinks the Jewish community has “a unique opportunity. Most people in the Jewish community are educated and in positions of real influence. I think the combination of education and influence is something we can use positively to the extent we can be helpful.”

In the meantime, the connection, though tenuous, hasn’t been severed yet. People still go back to the cemeteries in Newark once a year. And the synagogues have a variety of efforts afoot to use their influence for good.

Members of Oheb Shalom, some of whom trace their roots back to its original leaders, play key roles and have fingerprints everywhere at the Greater Newark Conservancy, an urban environmental education center partially housed in Oheb’s original building; and Bnai Jeshurun’s rabbi Matthew Gewirtz has actively developed ties with leaders in Newark, and the congregation held its 160th anniversary at its High Street location in Newark. 

But the reality is that communal memory is slipping into history. 

As Mark Gordon said, “I don’t have the experience” of a long personal history in Newark. Soon, no one else will, either.

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