Jewish Newark

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Temple B’nai Abraham (built 1924), now Deliverance Temple, Copyright Jim.henderson

Once upon a time, Newark had a large, vibrant, diverse, thriving Jewish community. It was home to the sixth-largest Jewish community in the U.S., with a 70,000-strong population. There were countless synagogues, almost 100 cemeteries, many religious schools (for all ages), a newspaper, kosher bakeries and restaurants, charities, and so much more. Newark’s largest hospital, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, was also built under the community’s auspices.

As many of you may know, the most famous Jewish Newarker is Philip Roth, who has written about the city’s Jewish community as it was at mid-century, before urban blight, a high crime rate, and white flight left mostly ghosts in its wake. Sadly, the community fell into shambles after the Newark Riots of July 1967, and only one active synagogue is left. The cemeteries are in a tragic state of disrepair, and are frequent targets of vandalism.

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High Street YM–YWHA, Source Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest

From 1921–43, there was a daily newspaper, The Newark Jewish Chronicle. Revenue fell during WWII, and publisher Anton Kaufman (who was blind) sold his cemetery plot to keep the paper afloat. On the first day of 1943, he jumped to his death from an eighth-story hotel room, and the final issue came out a week later. It had been the final Jewish newspaper left in Newark.

By mid-century, most Jewish Newarkers lived in Weequahic in the South Ward. Weequahic means “head of the cove” in Lenni–Lenape. Philip Roth has written extensively about Jewish Weequahic as it was, painting a picture of a beautiful, sadly bygone community. Though the Newark Riots were focused in the Central Ward, those events frightened people all across Newark, and led to much white flight.

Today, most of the few hundred Jewish Newarkers left are Russian immigrants who came in the 1970s, and mostly live in Ivy Hill.

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Pennington Mansion, 1901, original home of Beth Israel Hospital, Source Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest

The first documented Jewish Newarker was German immigrant Louis Trier, who arrived in 1844. The next year, his son Abraham became Newark’s first known Jewish birth. A few years later, B’nai Jeshurun became the first Newark synagogue. Dressmaker Hester Goldstein was said to be the first female Jewish Newarker to own her own business, listed in the 1853–54 directory.

Most of the early Jewish Newarkers came from Germany and Bohemia, and frequently worked as peddlers till they had enough money to open their own stores. By 1855, there were 200 families, and many of their stores dotted the main streets. In the 1880s, with a huge wave of immigration from the Pale of Settlement (thanks to the bloody pogroms of Tsar Aleksandr III’s reign), the city’s Jewish population swelled even more.

Once these immigrants became more affluent, they left their working-class roots behind and moved to more bourgeois areas like Weequahic.

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Oheb Shalom/Prince Street Synagogue (built 1860), Newark’s oldest remaining synagogue. The congregation has since relocated, and the building is used as an environmental centre

In 1933, Newark’s first and only Jewish mayor to date, Mayer Ellenstein, was elected. That same year, Weequahic High School opened. By this point, Newark’s population had reached 445,000, with at least 70,000 Jewish residents. Following WWII, many African–Americans began moving to the city, and in response, many longtime Newarkers left for suburbia. By the time of the Newark Riots in 1967, the Jewish population was very paltry, and those few who’d remained soon left as well.

Today, mostly only ghosts are left.

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Jewish Museum of New Jersey, formerly Ahavas Sholom, Copyright Peter Greenberg

My characters settle in Newark after their immigration to the U.S. in November 1948. The distant relatives of sisters Eszter and Mirjam, who made all of their immigration possible, have lived in the West Ward of Newark for many years, so it makes sense to live in the same city. Some of my interconnected characters in other books also live in Newark.

Sources consulted:

“Newark,” Helen Lippman, Hadassah magazine, April/May 2015
“Newark – Remembering a Forgotten Jewish Community,” Jay Levinson, The Jewish Magazine, May 2007
List of Rutgers research guides
“Jewish Newark’s Urban Pioneers Rest Uneasily; The Dead, Left Behind in the Suburban Diaspora, Lay Amid a Landscape of Ravaged Monuments,” Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times, 15 October 2000
“City of Graveyards: The Demise of Jewish Newark,” Jason Maoz, JewishPress.com, 24 March 2010 (updated 14 November 2011)
“For One Day, Newark’s Jews Return To Mourn,” Anthony Weiss, The Forward, 8 October 2008
Old Newark
Newarkology
“Long mute, photos tell tales of Newark roots,” Robert Wiener, The New Jersey Jewish News 13 August 2009
Newark Religion, Old Newark

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4 thoughts on “Jewish Newark

  1. Pingback: A to Z Reflections 2017 « Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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