For 30 years, the YM-YWHA on High Street in Newark hosted a cross-section of American cultural icons.
The Y’s guest list ranged from pilot Amelia Earhart to physicist Albert Einstein and included such celebrities as composers Jan Paderewski, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin; dancer Martha Graham; Admiral Richard Byrd; folksinger Woody Guthrie; and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas.
Now, 57 years after the High Street Y closed its doors, the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest is resurrecting memories of those stellar appearances with “The Y on High,” an exhibit at the Gaelen Gallery East in the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
The exhibit includes many of the Y’s monthly bulletins, memorabilia, and posters and photographs from its events. Many have not been seen for more than 50 years. The exhibit opened March 7 and runs until May 9.
JHS executive director Linda Forgosh calls the exhibit “a stunning account of cultural arts in America. It documents not only Newark’s great place in American-Jewish life, but in America.”
The Y was located in the heart of Newark’s Jewish community between 1924 and 1954 on the corner of High and Kinney streets.
“The Y was the destination for Newark’s Jews and beyond Newark’s Jews because the programming was exceptional,” Forgosh said. “It was built by German-Jewish refugees for Eastern European immigrants who followed them to Newark’s Jewish community.
“They wanted to create a center for Jews to socialize through sports and classes and holiday parties. All of that stuff was aimed at Americanizing this first generation of American Jews who came to Newark after the German Jews. The easiest way for them to assimilate was to have them come to a center that promoted American traditions. That is what the Y did.”
The founders of the Y wanted it to rival the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which Forgosh called “the gold standard” for Jewish cultural institutions.
“So the people in Newark hired away Aaron Robison, the director of the 92nd Street Y,” she said.
In its first year, a program called “Bits of Hits” helped put the Y on the map, said Forgosh. “The Y gathered local talent and performed plays you would have found on many stages in America, as well as some originals.”
Directors included playwright Moss Hart and movie impresario Dory Schary.
Eventually, Newark’s Jewish community began moving from the High Street area to the less urbanized and more affluent Weequahic section, and the institution on High Street closed in 1954; the Chancellor Avenue Y opened in 1959 in Weequahic.
In 1967, the YM-YWHA of Essex County (now the Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus) opened its doors on Northfield Avenue in West Orange, after Newark’s three largest synagogues, Oheb Shalom Congregation, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, and Temple B’nai Abraham, had moved to the suburbs.
But to Forgosh, the history of the Y connects the Jewish community’s past with its present.
“People who visit the exhibit will sense that their legacy starts in Newark and made its way to the suburbs. What they will see in our showcase is a template for what came after,” she said.
“Thousands of people visit the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian in Washington every year. I consider this the equivalent.”