The Last Synagogue

In Newark, a small congregation strives to maintain its historic presence.

Ahavas Sholom president Eric Freedman at the playground that the congregation raised $250,000 to build for a neighboring elementary school.
Photo by Erik Rank.

Newark belongs to Jesus,” proclaims the oversized vinyl banner hanging across the street from Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark. Just half a century ago, the city housed nearly 30 synagogues that served a bustling community of 60,000 Jews. But those buildings are either gone or have been converted to churches that now ring with choir song and pastors’ sermons on Sunday mornings.

Today, Ahavas Sholom’s modest two-and-a-half-story building is the only active synagogue in Newark city limits. The city’s Jewish footprint has shrunk. A small operation run by Chabad (a sect of Hassidic Judaism) based out of a downtown hotel, an aging enclave of Russian Jews housed in an apartment complex, and a yeshiva (a traditional Jewish school) geared toward the Orthodox employees at IDT Telecom also call Newark home. But Ahavas Sholom is the last link to the city’s bustling Jewish past—before Newark fell prey to blight and the Jewish community fled to the suburbs. The stained-glass windows that line the sanctuary bear the names of patrons who have long since passed away: Boris Gechtman, Esther Goldhammer, Sholom Rosenfeld. On most Saturday mornings, just 30 of the congregation’s 200 members gather to pray in front of the synagogue’s historic ark.

Still, there are signs of hope: a handful of wedding ceremonies in the last year, popular potluck dinners following semi-regular Friday-night services, a newly established junior congregation, and a book club. This month, 150 to 175 people are expected for High Holiday services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Last fall, so many people showed up to the services that the synagogue ran out of prayer books.) And this October, the community will gather to honor the bar mitzvah of a young member named Nicholas Scott-Hearn. In 1997, the Star-Ledger reported on then 13-year-old Marshall Steinbaum being the first boy in 27 years to become a bar mitzvah at Ahavas Sholom. In contrast, Scott-Hearn will be the latest of several recent youths to be so honored in the community.

Scott-Hearn’s mother, 54-year-old Dubra Shenker—a Saturday morning regular who celebrated her own adult bat mitzvah at Ahavas Sholom in 2005—says that although her son commutes from Newark to attend Hebrew school at Shomrei Emunah in nearby Montclair, Ahavas Sholom was the obvious choice for Nicholas’s simcha (joyous occasion). “This is our home,” she says. And it is. Like other self-proclaimed urban pioneers over the last decade, Shenker and her husband moved to Newark in 2000 seeking affordable housing in proximity to New York City.

Shenker’s commitment to Newark and Ahavas Sholom represents the newest chapter in the synagogue’s history. Ahavas Sholom was founded as an Orthodox congregation in 1905, more than 50 years after the first German-Jewish immigrants started to arrive in Newark. Its location in the northern section of the city, which at the time was mostly populated by Italians, set Ahavas Sholom apart from the city’s crowded Jewish enclaves like the Central Ward and Weequahic—later the home and creative muse of author Philip Roth. While Ahavas Sholom was neither as large nor as wealthy as Newark’s other synagogues, the congregation flourished for many years.

Newark’s trajectory dramatically shifted in the second half of the twentieth century. The city was ravaged by industrial decline, racial tension, crime, and massive white flight. The decades-long slump was punctuated by the devastating 1967 riots that left 26 people dead and demoralized nearly everyone else. Between 1960 and 1980, the population of Newark dropped from 405,220 to 329,248. Jews were among those who fled—and many of Newark’s long-established synagogues and Jewish organizations either disbanded or followed their members to nearby suburbs like West Orange, Livingston, and Caldwell.

The one major exception was Ahavas Sholom, which—against all odds—stayed. “The Jews of North Newark were always the minority as compared to other neighborhoods,” says one of the congregation’s vice presidents, 60-year-old Jeff Haveson, who spent his adolescence in the city and moved a few blocks from the synagogue in 2000. “So the community felt less threatened as the population changed.” The Italians of the North Ward were also slower to flee than other white residents, which lessened the impact of the population shift. But while Ahavas Sholom remained a physical Jewish presence in Newark, the congregation steadily declined.

By the time current synagogue president Eric Freedman, 52, arrived in the early 1990s on a community-service trip organized by Metrowest, a nonprofit health and human services agency, the place had fallen into near disuse. The rundown building completely closed during the summer, and the services—which at the time still clung to the Orthodox prayer book—struggled to attract a minyan (a prayer quorum of ten men). “The membership was almost exclusively 75-to 80-year-olds,” he remembers.

Never a regular synagogue attendee, Freedman surprised himself by returning to Ahavas Sholom the following fall for Shabbat services. “Growing up, my bubbe lived with us,” he says, using the Yiddish word for grandmother. “She was this poor Lithuanian Jew who prayed at home three times a day, and she was my primary anchor to Judaism. When I walked in [to Ahavas Sholom], I immediately felt that she would have been comfortable there.” In the social hall after his first service, Freedman promised one of the synagogue’s patriarchs that he would help make a minyan the following Saturday. He never stopped coming. A few years later he accepted the role of president.

Along with then Rabbi Art Vernon (the congregation’s spiritual leader until 2004), Freedman helped the congregation ease away from its Orthodox roots toward Conservative affiliation, which they felt better reflected the inclusive, participatory vision they hoped to realize for the community. Freedman also brought with him a deep commitment to social justice, and in 2003 Ahavas Sholom revamped its mission statement to explicitly include tikkun olam—“repairing the world”—and neighborhood engagement as foundational synagogue tenets. The first step: re-imagine the building.

“Every time I open the papers, I read about organizations in Newark in desperate need of space,” says Freedman, who runs a stucco-and-stone business in Roselle and commutes to Ahavas Sholom from nearby Jersey City. “We are not a wealthy community, but we have this building to share—so we did.” Today, the local Boy Scout troop, Newark’s Liberian refugee support group, and a handful of other community organizations regularly hold meetings in Ahavas Sholom’s historic building. This past December, when the Boy Scouts accidentally planned their meeting for the same time as Ahavas Sholom’s annual Hanukkah party, Freedman invited the children to light candles with the congregation. “It was a nice cultural exchange,” he says.

In addition to opening its doors to other organizations’ meetings, the congregation has also hosted interfaith freedom seders (the traditional Passover feast), shared sukkah (a hut built to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot) meals with members from the Methodist church next door, and, perhaps most significantly, raised $250,000 to build a playground for a nearby public elementary school—a staggering amount that took the synagogue five years, a matching grant from the DEP’s Green Acres Program, and several other foundation gifts to amass.

Playing host to secular organizations and raising money for local playgrounds are not typical indicators of synagogue health, especially considering Ahavas Sholom is simultaneously fundraising to renovate its building. But these acts of community engagement attest to a different kind of vibrancy. “Eric’s vision of tikkun olam gives [our congregation] a sense of purpose,” Shenker says. “There’s a closeness of community that stems from a common cause.”

Ahavas Sholom also recently became the home of the Jewish Museum of New Jersey. Founded in 2003, the museum hosted its inaugural exhibit in 2007 in a revamped second-floor balcony space. The museum provides a stable residence for Newark’s Jewish legacy and helps attract new visitors to the building. Museum president Max Herman, an Ahavas Sholom member, says the educational programs also contribute to the synagogue’s mission of neighborhood outreach.

Despite the congregation’s progress, Freedman is reluctant to overstate Ahavas Sholom’s accomplishments. More than 90 percent of synagogue members drive in from the suburbs. Some come because their parents and grandparents once belonged, while others seek a friendly alternative to the wealthy institutional synagogues in the suburbs. (Commuter congregations are common among inner-city houses of worship.) Ahavas Sholom’s spiritual leader, 61-year-old assistant prosecutor and rabbinical student Simon Rosenbach, works entirely pro bono. And for now, building costs are partially covered by donations stipulated in the wills of longtime members who have passed away. “That’s no way to run a business,” Freedman says.

Meanwhile, the congregation still tends to get overlooked by city government and by the Jewish Federation, housed just a few miles away in the suburbs. On Hanukkah, Chabad, not Ahavas Sholom, is usually asked to represent Newark’s Jewish contingent at the public menorah lighting on the lawn at City Hall. Similarly, Herman describes an event he attended in 2007 at the Jewish Community Center in West Orange, where a speaker declared that Newark no longer had a Jewish center. “How could he say that?” Herman says. “We are right here.”

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Saveur, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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