An old synagogue becomes an urban oasis

An old synagogue becomes an urban oasis

Newark Conservancy’s new building honors its Jewish ancestry

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The Moorish facade of the building on Prince Street, once the home of Oheb Shalom Congregation, now part of the Greater Newark Conservancy.
The Moorish facade of the building on Prince Street, once the home of Oheb Shalom Congregation, now part of the Greater Newark Conservancy.

It’s been over 100 years since members of Oheb Shalom Congregation last used their old home on Newark’s Prince Street. Since then the synagogue moved on to High Street, before leaving Newark for South Orange. Meanwhile, the building was purchased by Congregation Adas Israel and Mishnayes in 1911, and then sold in 1939 to the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

By 1993, when the church vacated the structure seemingly overnight, there were few traces that the deteriorating building had ever been a synagogue.

Improbably, however, there is new life at the old building, and one with a deep connection to its long-ago Jewish occupants. The Greater Newark Conservancy and its urban environmental center in Newark acquired the building in 1995 from the city of Newark, and are now in phase two of transforming it into what will be its main building.

The 15,800-square-foot building will include a large lecture hall/community space, environmental classrooms, a demonstration kitchen/laboratory, environmental exhibit galleries, and meeting rooms. 

What’s more, the Conservancy board includes members who are taking a personal interest in preserving the site’s Jewish history. One of those members is Rachel Schwarz, who traces her family tree back to the first rabbi of Oheb Shalom.

On a recent Friday morning, Stephen Earley, superintendent of Hanini Construction, led a tour of the site with three Conservancy board members: Mark Gordon, who serves as secretary of the board and is also a member of Oheb Shalom; Schwarz, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange; and Conservancy board cochair Hans Solmssen.

Board members refer to it alternately as “the Main Building” and “the Synagogue,” according to Solmssen. He is eager to reach out to the Jewish community and bring them back to their roots in the space, through volunteer work and donations to the Newark Conservancy.

Committed to bringing environmental education to residents of Newark and nearby urban areas, the conservancy already has a vibrant outdoor learning center, which opened next door in 2004 and has since had over 20,000 schoolchildren as visitors. Along the way, several improvements were made to the synagogue building, including a new roof (1997) and an exterior restoration (1999). 

Now steel girders reach up into the sky behind the old building. The addition will house a staircase, elevator, terrace, program areas, and administrative space. 

A new cement floor is being poured, following the installation of a new HVAC system, radiant floor heating, and waterproofing. The original stained glass windows adorning the Moorish facade, stolen and sold, have been found and repurchased. Now being restored at a shop in Frenchtown, they will once again be set in place. 

The construction is expected to be completed in the fall. The total cost of the current renovation, which does not include the sanctuary and mezzanine, is $3 million. In order to complete the sanctuary, another $1.5 million will have to be raised.

“After all this time, it’s amazing to see this actually coming to life,” said Gordon, standing on the edge of the construction site. 

Jewish values

Oheb Shalom was established in 1860 by former members of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. After meeting in a small apartment and then a wooden structure on Prince Street, the congregation erected the brick building on Prince Street in 1884 at a cost of over $25,000 ($600,000 in today’s dollars). It is the second oldest synagogue building in New Jersey, and it is listed on the State Register of Historic Places.

Oheb Shalom maintains its connection to its Newark homes, and when it celebrated its 150th anniversary, led a procession from its current home in South Orange to Prince Street and then to the High Street building. Many current Oheb Shalom members have been part of the congregation for generations. 

Gordon, an amateur historian who has had articles published on early American synagogues, first came across the Oheb Shalom building on Prince Street in 1986 after receiving a note from David Schechner, a member of the synagogue. (Gordon omitted it from an article he had written about the 55 oldest synagogues in the United States.) Gordon not only became interested in the congregation, but ended up joining it after moving to New Jersey for unrelated reasons and growing close with its then rabbi, Alex Shapiro, who was among those whose efforts saved the building from demolition in the early 1990s.

Gordon said that despite searching through numerous archives, no one has come across any photos of the sanctuary from the 1930s, when Adas Israel and Mishnayes occupied the building. “If anyone has a photo, it would be very helpful” for the next phase of construction, he said. “We could easily make small amendments to our plans.”

Like her relative David Schechner, Rachel Schwarz is a descendant of the congregation’s original rabbi, Isaac Schwarz. “My great-great-grandparents sat on these pews, in this sanctuary,” she said. Everywhere she looks, there are reminders of her family’s connection to the synagogue as well as to the Conservancy, which her late mother, Diane, was a part of almost from its inception. 

Sisters, cousins, and other relatives have fingerprints everywhere, in the signage, in memory, and in the roles they have played in the building’s latest incarnation. A cousin, Sara Schechner, designed the iconic sundial that often serves as a meeting place in the outdoor gardens. Rachel’s parents donated a trellis, and her sister Rebecca engaged the children in a work of art that adorns a window of the old post office that now serves as the Conservancy’s administrative buildings. 

Her late mother, a Head Start teacher in Newark, was involved in the creation of the conservancy almost from its inception, and involved many other family members in its mission. “My parents were composting before it was in vogue!” she said. Schwarz said she had “dreamed of teaching kids in urban areas with no access to how things grow.” Her mother, who died in 2003, was recently honored posthumously by the Conservancy. 

“The values of the Conservancy are reflective of Jewish values,” said Schwarz. Referring to an initiative at the Conservancy to employ non-violent former prisoners, she added, “The ex-offenders program is in line with that. We cannot turn Newark around unless we find a way to integrate ex-offenders into society.” 

She added, “We’re a secular organization but we take pride in our facility and we have attachment and respect for the history of the building.” 

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