21 September 2009

New Jersey: Newark's Jewish community

Does Newark, New Jersey figure in your family's history? At one point in history, the city had 53 synagogues; today, only a few remain.

My TALALAY/TOLLIN branch settled in Newark, when my great-grandfather Aaron Peretz Talalay (changed to Tollin) arrived from Vorotinschtina, Mogilev, Belarus. Already living in Newark for quite some time was Aaron's maternal aunt Dora YASIN/JASSEN and her husband, Meyer KONVISER. Zayde and his family were joined by his brother David and his family a few years later. Several families formed the Mogilev Benevolent Society.

If your family's like mine, the NewarkUSA blog, authored by L Craig Schoonmaker, will provide some color. He has included 19 photos of places, documents and more in this post.

The story covers Ahavas Sholom (the state's oldest continually operating synagogue, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2006) and the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, which are located at 145 Broadway in Newark's North Ward, which opened in December 2007.

The post offers links to other stories that may be of interest, such as an exhibit on the Weequahic community.

Most of the story is a 2008 interview with museum president Max Herman.

The author cites a Google Books Limited Preview of The Enduring Community: the Jews of Newark and MetroWest by William B. Helmreich (1998), for more information.

Why a Jewish museum for New Jersey? Jews have lived in New Jersey for more than two centuries, and today it is home to almost a half-million Jews, the fourth largest community after New York, California and Florida. They live in all of the state's 21 counties.

The interview covers the founding of Ahavas Shalom with founders Ada and Leopold Jacobson looking for a place to hold the bris (Jewish ritual circumcision) for their first son. They couldn't find a place, held the event in their apartment and later founded the congregation, raising the funds to construct the building in 1922 or 1923.

The Aron Kodesh (the Ark that holds the Torah scrolls) dates from the 1870s and is the oldest in New Jersey. It was brought over from from Rodeph Shalom in New York City. Herman recounts that the ark was huge, a mahogany structure much larger than present, with a spire adding another 10 feet in height and longer on each side. The extra pieces went into constructing the bima, the platform where rabbi and cantor conduct services.

Although the museum had been told the Ark was donated, said Herman, Hadassah Bachman, 90, recently came to the museum and said her father, grocer Hyman Bachman, was the congregation's president and that he and Leopold Jacobson had brought the ark to Newark. Jacobson was a cabinetmaker and the grocer had a truck. They took apart the Ark, brought it over and reassembled it.

By the late 1980s, the then-Orthodox congregation's membership had decreased and it was in trouble, having trouble gathering a minyan to hold services. A scandal of sorts was hinted at by Herman but a prominent Newark attorney Ben Arens saved the synagogue from being sold. During a clean-up visit, a man named Eric Freedman was involved and Arens "strong-armed" him into becoming president, a post he continues to hold. It is a Conservative congregation today.

It seats about 110 and Herman said they get a full-house during the High Holy Days, but a normal Shabbat is 15 or 20. Most congregants are from the suburbs and have a nostalgic connection to the place. Herman notes that most come from Livingston, West Orange, South Orange, Montclair and the Caldwells - all in Essex County. Some people are evening moving back to the city.

The congregation includes Jews who have gravitated to Newark from Brazil, Ukraine and Sudan. Herman mentions they have several African-American members.

One in particular is Yehuda Ben-Levi, who traces his origins to Sudan, and then to South Carolina thru slavery, and it's an interesting story. A lot of the folks that come here have kind of interesting histories or genealogies about how they got to this place. But the doors are always open.
The Newark City Council gave the congregation a certificate of commendation when the synagogue was rededicated after renovations. The New Jersey Historic Trust helped the project with a $126,000 grant.

Referenced in Schoonmaker's post is another NJJN article (2007) which quotes Max Herman, and covers the museum's opening exhibit, demonstrating the range of New Jersey Jewish life, from Paterson's silk workers, Vineland's farmers and south Jersey's communes, such as Roosevelt.

Read Schoonmaker's complete post at the link above.


  1. Anonymous9:01 PM

    Now this is interesting. I am married to a Konviser, grandson of the Vegetarian Hotel Konvisers, and I was not aware of any relatives in Newark! In fact, I have never encountered the name Mayer Konviser, even though my husband was raised about half an hour from Newark. I wonder if there is any relation. His family came from Bialystock before the war.

  2. Hi, Bentley. No idea. Our KONVISER were from Mogilev, Belarus. I believe Meyer and his first wife Dora came to Newark by 1898. There was also a branch of the family in the Boston area (spelled with a C), and a possibly related family in South Africa. The Newark relatives are now all over NJ, PA, etc. Meyer's wife Dora Iasin (JASSEN) was the sister of Kreine Mushe Iasin (JASSEN) the mother of my great-grandfather Aron Peretz Talalai (TOLLIN).