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‘Torah’ inspires drive for new playground
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‘Torah’ inspires drive for new playground

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The Sussex Avenue Renew School in Newark is getting a new playground, thanks to Ahavas Sholom, the oldest operating synagogue in Newark. Currently, the site is a barren asphalt expanse surrounded by a steel fence.

The synagogue is partnering with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that generates public funds for conservation, on a $1 million renovation that will incorporate “green” elements, an outdoor learning area, and recreation spaces.

Synagogue leaders have spearheaded the effort, making pitches, raising funds, and finding all the people along the way to do everything from drawing up plans to writing the grant proposals to donating the money.

Asked why the congregation took on the project to begin with, president Eric Freedman of West Orange gave a one-word answer: “Torah.”

“I don’t mean to be glib,” he added, “but this is just repairing the world and extending social justice to the community we’re in.”

Ahavas Sholom previously led a drive to renovate the playground at Newark’s Newton Street Elementary School, at a cost of $250,000.

When Freedman was approached and asked to build a playground for the Sussex Avenue Renew School, he thought they could give it a try.

Ahavas Sholom got a solid start, with a $375,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program and a $75,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

But that was far short of the $1 million it would take to build the ambitious project that now includes not just playground equipment but also a butterfly garden, a vegetable garden, and an outdoor classroom. About three years ago, the Trust for Public Land, another organization that has worked to improve public schoolyards in Newark, agreed to collaborate.

The Sussex playground marks the first time the two are working together. “The timing was right,” said Freedman in a phone conversation with NJJN. “They were almost finished with all of their Newark projects.” Anthony Cucchi, the trust’s NJ director, called the partnership “unique.”

The Trust for Public Land and Ahavas Sholom raised the remainder of the $1 million by securing support from multiple funders, including the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, Prudential Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Victoria Foundation, Helen & William Mazer Foundation, Gibson Family Foundation, CTW Foundation, John & Margaret Post Foundation, PSEG Foundation, Wallerstein Foundation for Geriatric Life Improvement, Hyde & Watson Foundation, Landsberger Foundation, and other private donors.

“The Trust for Public Land was the key to getting it done,” said Freedman.

Significant public funding for the project is being provided by NJDEP’s Green Acres Program and the City of Newark’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

The two organizations secured the final $75,000 this month from the NY/NJ SnowflakeYouth Foundation, which promotes after-school activities.

At Sussex Avenue Renew School, principal Darleen L. Gearhart said, “I am grateful that the playground project has been fully funded and is under way. [The school] and the community it serves will benefit greatly from the social-emotional and health impact the playground provides.”

Ahavas Sholom, affiliated with the Conservative movement, is the last of some 40 Newark synagogues, all of which have either moved to the suburbs or merged with other shuls. Like many inner-city churches, the congregation draws the greater part of its members from outside the city itself.

“We’re a small place,” said Freedman. “We’re not going to change the world. But as Jews, we are taught that we may not be able to complete the task, but we’re absolutely required to begin it. Well, in Newark, everywhere you look, there’s an opportunity to do tzedaka. We are responsible to lift up the downtrodden.”

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