First they walked, retracing the steps of those who came before them; then they sang and worshiped with those who followed in their footsteps.
Oheb Shalom Congregation celebrated its 150th anniversary on May 23 with a walk from the Conservative synagogue’s first home on Newark’s Prince Street — now the Greater Newark Conservancy — to its second home in the city, today’s Wells Cathedral Church of God in Christ on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
About 350 people gathered for the “Walk of Ages” and an interfaith service held at the church on May 23.
The day was a celebration of the synagogue’s Newark roots, before its move to South Orange in 1957. Members of both congregations whose roots in the community stretched back for generations came from local suburbs and from towns in, among others, Middlesex, Ocean, and Somerset counties. The walk raised $5,000 for three local organizations: The Greater Newark Conservancy, the Community Soup Kitchen in Orange, and Lighthouse Community Services of Newark.
“The message for today is that we ought to search out and emphasize that which we have in common as human beings, and that great religious traditions have a great deal in common and can learn from each other,” said Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Mark Cooper.
Oheb Shalom occupied the church site, on what was then known as High Street, from 1911 until 1957; the church purchased the building from Oheb Shalom and moved in a year later.
The two congregations joined forces for the day’s events, and there was plenty of good will to go around. Sharon Butler and Myrna Mazer headed the ushering committees for the church and the synagogue, respectively, and they were chatting like old friends in the sanctuary before the walkers arrived.
“It’s so exciting that we can have fellowship with another congregation, and with one so historic,” said Butler, a Somerset resident and Wells member for 30 years. “We are so excited to be part of history in the making, as they come back to see their old homestead.”
Longtime Oheb Shalom members grew teary-eyed as they found their family seats in the well-preserved sanctuary, which still has its original pews, and recalled life-cycle events and holidays, and youths spent in the building. Many of the original architectural details remain.
“When I walked in and saw the building was so well preserved, I feel right at home,” said Mazer, of Millburn. “I feel a part of it. The people of this congregation are our new friends. We love being with them.”
Bishop Norman Prescott, who leads the NJ “jurisdiction” to which Wells belongs, was among the dignitaries at the event.
“The significance of this day is that people from the Jewish faith and community and from the Christian faith and community can come together to celebrate this church being one of the historic buildings of that Jewish congregation,” Prescott told NJJN. “The good will that’s pretty evident among Jews and Christians sends a tremendous positive message.”
Prescott also referred to racial tensions between Jews and blacks in the 1950s and ’60s.
Jews may have left Newark “with memories not so pleasant, but what has been happening over these weeks between the two congregations, and today, becomes the antithesis to what might have caused the Jews to leave this particular area,” the bishop said. “The return — the fellowship today — speaks volumes.”
The interfaith service was the second gathering for the congregations in as many months; in April they joined at Oheb Shalom for a Shabbat service. That event inspired Wells’ Pastor Hersey Taylor to introduce a new tradition he had witnessed among synagogue members: the hugging and kissing among congregants. “When we met there, there was so much love, it inspired us to create something different here,” Taylor told NJJN.
Taylor celebrated the congregations’ bonds. “This is the beginning of a history that should have been made a long time ago,” he said. “Through Rabbi Mark Cooper, whom God gave the vision to, we are thrilled to be with them today. It’s a historic event of our time at Wells Cathedral when brothers can get together and come back and worship God together.”
There was plenty of spirited singing and prayer, as the choirs from the two houses of worship joined together for a version of “Sim Shalom,” directed by the synagogue’s Cantor Erica Lippitz, and the church’s choir offered their rendition of a hasidic melody.
Cynthia Plishton and Hal Braff hugged as they remembered their childhoods in the old building.
“Cynthia Plishton was the prettiest girl at my bar mitzva on October 17, 1947. That tells you how old we are. For Cynthia and me, it brings back wonderful memories. How beautiful and how well kept it is is very thrilling,” said Braff.
“I am really choked up to be here,” added Plishton. “I went to Hebrew school here. I was confirmed here. I walked down this aisle. I chose to sit in my family’s seats today.”
Another longtime member, Judy Simon, called the day “exhilarating.”
One of the high points of the day was a Torah service held on the bima, at the original lectern that is still in use today at Wells, all at the invitation of Taylor.
Dr. Jerry Horowitz was called to the Torah for an aliya; he recently celebrated the 72nd anniversary of his bar mitzva, held in the Wells Cathedral building. Rachel Breitman, a younger member of Oheb and regular Torah reader, read a passage selected for the day. Jack Greenberg, a regular Torah reader, lifted the scroll, and Paula Blum, who had first met her late husband on the steps of the building in which they were married, was given the honor of dressing the scroll.
The circle was completed when Michael Schechner, a current Oheb Shalom member and a descendant of the congregation’s first rabbi, Isaac Schwarz, returned the sefer Torah to its place in front of what was once the holy ark.
“We are making history today,” declared Taylor toward the end of his sermon.