To ‘land’ a date, Jewish kids found the ‘Dunams’
Historical society acquires the records of ’50s singles group
Forty years before J-Date — or the Internet, for that matter — single Jewish men and women in suburban Essex County devised creative ways to meet one another.
One popular idea was born in 1957 within a young adults’ group called the Senior League at Temple B’nai Abraham. The synagogue, now in Livingston, was then on 10th Street in Newark.
“Jewish single people did not have many places to meet,” explained Leonard Seligman. “There was a women’s organization that was having dances at the Essex House,” then the leading hotel in downtown Newark. “We thought we’d have something a little more exclusive, and we started off with invitation-only. Our first dance was at Temple B’nai Israel in Millburn with a live band.”
Seligman and other charter members called the singles group the Dunams— the Israeli term for a quarter-acre of land.
Supporting Israel may have been on some people’s minds when the group was founded, but the name also grew out of practical considerations.
“We said, ‘Gee, what if it’s a bust?’ Then a few people will get stuck with the cost of renting the place and paying the band,” said Seligman.
So they hunted for sponsors and found a willing partner in the Jewish National Fund, which then, as now, buys and develops land in Israel. “We donated money to JNF as we went along. That’s why we called the group ‘the Dunams,’” Seligman recalled from his home in Spencertown, NY.
“We tried to meet at least twice a month,” said Jay Horn, who joined a few years after Seligman and became the group’s president.
The Dunams’ main attraction was the cocktail parties that drew 300 to 400 single men and women to country clubs and restaurants in Essex County — at a staggering cost of $3 per person.
In addition, the group sponsored speakers and special programs on weeknights that drew 30 to 40 people to any given event.
“We had the whole range of subjects we felt would draw people in,” said Horn. “Obviously, behind this all was the desire for young men to meet young women.”
The age range was 21-35. “It was pretty much understood it was limited to Jews,” Horn told NJ Jewish News as he sat in the office of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, leafing through a scrapbook of Dunams memorabilia.
But the themes of most events were not strictly “Jewish.”
Inside the two-inch loose-leaf binder were invitations, programs, and photographs — from a concert featuring a barbershop quartet to lectures on such topics as alcoholism, handwriting analysis, and “The World of Prostitution.”
More lavish events included a “Beatniks Party,” “Fun in the Sun” at the Colony Swim Club in Livingston, and a “Yom Kippur Reunion Ball” at Goldman’s Hotel in West Orange.
At its peak, the Dunams had a mailing list of 1,500 singles.
But headcounts were only one way the group measured success.
Rhoda Kravitz had a more personal yardstick.
Like Horn, she grew up on Hawthorne Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark. “Our mothers knew each other and pushed us in baby carriages,” she said.
Rhoda and Jay met again as teenagers at Weequahic High School, where they graduated in 1950.
In their 20s, the couple reconnected at a Dunams get-together at the Bow and Arrow Manor, now The Manor, on Prospect Avenue in West Orange.
“I came with a group of girls,” said Kravitz. “I said ‘hello’ to him, and he said ‘hello’ to me. The other girls hadn’t met anyone, and they were ready to leave, and I came in their car. I didn’t want to go home, so I went over to Jay and said, ‘Would you give me a ride?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’” she recalled as she sat by his side in the JHS office on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
They began dating and married the following June, in 1963. They moved from Newark to Hillside and then to Springfield, where they raised their three children and together ran an insurance agency.
“There were many connections that were made through the Dunams,” said Jay Horn. “If you reached out and asked people who read this…if they hooked up as a result of the Dunams, I think you’d get an interesting response.”
That is the hope of JHS executive director Linda Forgosh, who knew nothing about the Dunams until she recently met the Horns.
“It took me by complete surprise,” she said as she leafed happily through the scrapbook, her agency’s latest acquisition.
“Our archives are a work in progress,” said Forgosh. “Our history is long and more than just remarkable. It’s like pieces of a puzzle. You put them all together and you get another idea of the scope and size of how the community worked. The history the Horns have held onto for the best part of 45 years has found a home here.”