Marty Feitlowitz, a 52-year resident of West Orange, has served as vice president of the Jewish Community Housing Corporation (a partner agency, based in South Orange, of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ), chair of the West Orange Historic Preservation Commission and the town’s Main Street Revitalization Committee, and a member of the West Orange Mayor’s Advisory Committee.
But despite his longtime deep involvement with local organizations, because his roots stem from the once-prominent Jewish community of Paterson, Feitlowitz has devoted many volunteer hours to the Jewish Historical Society (JHS) of North Jersey, an agency affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ, whose mission is “preserving the heritage of Jewish life and culture in Passaic, Bergen, and Hudson Counties.”
For his years of devoted service, the JHS of North Jersey will honor him on Wednesday, May 17, “for his valuable contributions to the society in the establishment of its new home in Fair Lawn.”
Feitlowitz, the society’s vice president, will receive his award at its annual fund-raising dinner at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.
In an April 25 interview, he told NJJN he became involved in the JHS of North Jersey because “my first 22 years were pretty much informed by Paterson” at a time when its Jewish community was thriving.
But, Feitlowitz said, he “didn’t grow up particularly Jewish. We were not temple belongers. My father’s father was a devout socialist. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a very devout Orthodox Jew.”
So, having been a product of what he called a “mixed marriage,” Feitlowitz said he chose a middle path. He is a member and past president of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
Growing up, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a six-family house in Paterson’s predominantly Jewish Tenth Avenue neighborhood, an area replete with kosher butchers, appetizing stores, and delis.
His father, Nathan, owned a one-man print shop, called, aptly, The Print Shop. It was where many Patersonians came to have invitations printed for weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. His mother, Pearl, was a saleswoman at Lobel’s, a clothing shop in East Paterson (now Elmwood Park).
“In many ways,” Feitlowitz said, Jewish Paterson “was a miniature Newark. We didn’t have [Newark native] Philip Roth but we had [Beat poet] Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, a poet who taught English at Paterson’s Central High School.”
The North Jersey JHS preserves the history of Jewish life in Paterson and beyond since it began in 1979 as an oral history project at the Charles Goldman Judaica Library, located in what was then the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne.
A group of former Patersonians who were working at the library kept receiving inquiries about the city’s historic Jewish community. According to Feitlowitz, “They looked at each other and said, ‘By God, there is nothing. We will lose that history if we don’t do something.’”
So they began collecting artifacts — “They tried to get people to give us their stuff, not throw it into the dumpster,” Feitlowitz said — and put them on display in a framing shop in Paterson.
From there the collection moved to a storage area at William Paterson College in Wayne, then to “a small, cramped basement” of Barnert Hospital in Paterson, which is now a medical office complex. “Nobody visited us there,” Feitlowitz complained.
Not until six years ago “had they gotten themselves organized enough” to give their collection a permanent home, Feitlowitz said. Taken by the organizers’ passion, he put his professional skills as an architect and designer to work to build display cabinets and develop the space the society purchased in an office building on River Road in Fair Lawn. Then he began working on crafting exhibits.
The exhibits start with the story of Nathan Barnert, who was the most prominent Jew in Paterson during its heyday. Barnert came from Germany in 1859 and opened a “fantastically successful” men’s clothing store on Main Street at the age of 20. He served for three years, 1883-86, as mayor of Paterson.
A synagogue in Paterson supported by Barnert, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, claimed to have been founded a year before the Newark congregation of the same name, in the 1840s. The Paterson synagogue was renamed Barnert Temple in his honor.
Barnert’s works of philanthropy included founding the Barnert Memorial Hospital as well as the Miriam Barnert Hebrew Free School and the Daughters of Miriam Nursing Home in Clifton, both of which were named after his wife.
Feitlowitz contributed to the historical society’s collection with “marvelous stuff” he inherited from his father, including documents signed by Barnert dating back to the 1850s.
He moved away from Paterson in 1960 after graduating from the Pratt Institute School of Architecture in Brooklyn, and married his high school girlfriend, Harriet Staum, then enrolled in Pratt’s graduate program.
After having two children, the family relocated to West Orange, where they have lived ever since. He is retired from his business, FKA Architects in Oakland.
He said he is at a loss to understand why he is being honored, “other than the fact that they felt I got the society started in their new home.”
Throughout all the years, he remains “really passionate about the Jews of Paterson.”
As he looks back, Feitlowitz said, he is pleased at his accomplishments.
“I am going to be 79 years old,” he said. “I have enjoyed things my parents could only dream of. I feel I have fulfilled their dreams.”