We as the Jewish people trace our roots back for millennia; as we remind ourselves every year at this time, our traditions are very, very old.
Our history in the Middle East is as old as our existence as a people, and our history in Europe, tragically upended as it was, traces back at least to the Dark Ages.
But America is a new country. We’ve been here, at least in small numbers, since just about the beginning, but most of our institutions are significantly newer than that.
The American Jewish federation system — the loosely affiliated group of charitable organizations that look after the Jewish community, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally, and change their names with wild abandon – is far newer. It seems to have started, in a form that’s recognizable to us now, in 1895, in Boston.
So the fact that the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is celebrating its centennial now is not only a joy, it’s also an accomplishment. It’s one of the oldest of the country’s federations, and it has much to look back on with pride.
The federation was founded in 1923 — this is, after all, its centennial year, so of course it was — but “you can’t really look at 1923 without understanding what led up to it,” Jill Hershorin, the archivist and curator of the Jewish Historical Society, now a part of the federation, said. “You have to look at the growth in our area.”
There were Jews in Newark during the Civil War, Ms. Hershorin said; “an organization was founded to support the families who were left behind when their sons and husbands and fathers went off to fight.” The Young Men’s Benevolent Society took care of the families of the Union soldiers. After the war, the country boomed, but “there were epidemics and industrial accidents and a lot of immigration, so there was a need for Jewish orphanages, a Jewish anti-tuberculosis society, and other charitable organizations that sprang up to meet those needs.”
Newark, a bustling port city, attracted many immigrants, and many of them were Jewish. As in other growing cities, the Jewish communities were divided between the more stable, wealthier older immigrants — many of them German — and the newer, poorer ones, and there were divisions in those communities too, Ms. Hershorin said. Immigrants from the same area in Europe, or even the same town, would establish landsmanshaftn, mutual aid societies. Those worked well in some ways, but there was little communication among them. The Jewish community was balkanized. There was a great deal of philanthropy in the community, but donors tended to pursue their own projects.
“That went on for the first two decades of the 20th century, until the magic year of 1922,” Ms. Hershorin said. That’s when the idea of centralizing those agencies began to gain traction. “1922 was the turning point, when the Jewish community began to have the idealistic concept that a cooperative system and unified, coordinated planning would be the strength of Jewish life.” Brothers-in-law Louis Bamberger and Felix Fuld, the innovative merchants and prominent philanthropists, pushed the idea.
Newark was not the only American community to come up with such a plan, but it was among the pioneers.
So in 1923, the Conference of Jewish Charities met for the first time. “The idea was for all the Jewish organizations to combine and to join the Newark Community Chest,” a secular nationwide organization, Ms. Hershorin said. “The idea was to consolidate everything.” The thought was that they’d give money to the Community Chest, which would allocate it back to them.
Not surprisingly, that didn’t work. “Community members said, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t going well.’” There also was some feeling that the Community Chest’s allocation decisions were hindered by antisemitism. So “in 1926, a decision was made not to rely on the Community Chest but instead to have three separate fundraising campaigns. ‘Put it in our hands again, and we’ll raise the money and disperse it ourselves,’ they said.” So the United Palestine Appeal, the United Jewish Campaign, and a local Jewish charity sent money overseas, to national organizations, and met local needs.
“That’s when they became the United Jewish Appeal,” Ms. Hershorin said. “In 1939, the national organization took that name, but it started in Newark.”
The move to the suburbs that was to become a tidal wave starting in the postwar period began in the 1920s, Ms. Hershorin said. The community’s needs grew during the Depression, and the guard changed; some of the older people left the area, or just left the board, and other people came in. UJA’s leaders “felt a responsibility to their constituents, so they changed the allocation model,” sending less money overseas and spending more on local needs. And they changed the organization’s name. The United Jewish Appeal became the fundraising arm of the Newark Council of Jewish Agencies, and then, as the move to the suburbs intensified, the name changed again, to the Essex County Council of Jewish Agencies.
“It got them through the Depression,” Ms. Hershorin said. “Newark was being built up at that point. L.S. Plaut, a department store owner from Connecticut, moved to Newark, and the family invested a lot of money in their store there, and they also opened Jewish schools.”
Women were active too. “In 1936, the Women’s Division, which is now called Women’s Philanthropy, was created,” Ms. Hershorin said. “It was instrumental and very boots-on-the-ground in knocking on doors and putting in an effort in getting people involved. At first, it was involved in helping Jews in their own countries, but soon it began shifting to getting displaced people to Palestine. And they helped people who came here; they’d go down to the docks with signs welcoming them to America.
“During the war, a lot of the boys went overseas, and some women did too,” she continued. “The federation wanted to open the membership to other organizations, to include synagogues, fraternal organizations, and service agencies, like the Jewish Family Service. They wanted to open up membership in the federation, to make it cheap. You could spend five bucks a year and you’d be a member. They wanted to make it more inclusive.
“In 1946, our UJA fundraising goal was $2 million,” Ms. Hershorin said; back then, that was a very ambitious goal. “So we decided to create a newsletter, and it would go to the community for the appeal, and it would talk about what the money was going toward.
“Six months later, the people in the federation who were making that newsletter decided that they would continue to publish it, and that it should focus on world and local events. And that’s how the New Jersey Jewish News was born, in 1947.”
Right after the war, the community expanded; the joy of the end of the hostilities and the ever-optimistic, green-lawned, white-picket-fenced future was nearly palpable. And the federation kept up with those dreams. “Social services were there for the new immigrants,” Ms. Hershorin said. “And they also helped the Jews who had been there all along. The Hebrew Youth Academy” — now the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School — “was founded.
The Y in Newark, which was founded in 1924, stayed open at its imposing High Street location before moving to smaller venues on Chancellor Avenue until 1954; it was a social center for the community.
“The community also sent millions of dollars to Israel. Golda Meir — she was Golda Myerson then — visited in 1948 to ask for money. Our community was happy to help. We stepped up. The community showed its values through that great fundraising effort.”
It’s important to note that this is the story of just one of the federations that now is part of Greater MetroWest, Ms. Hershorin noted. “The same things were happening at the same time in Elizabeth. That federation was started in 1940, when 31 agencies merged. They became the Elizabeth Jewish Council then, and in 1972, Jewish councils in Plainfield, Westfield, and eastern Union County merged with the one in Elizabeth to create the Jewish Council of Central New Jersey.”
All the federations moved through the 1950s successfully. “There was a lot of institution-building then,” Ms. Hershorin said.
“Moving into the 1960s, the suburbs were becoming more and more appealing,” Ms. Hershorin said; by the end of the decade, most Jewish institutions had abandoned Newark, and the ones that remained stayed only a few more years. “A lot of the synagogues moved from the city to the suburbs in the early ’60s, and new ones would pop up,” she continued. “The Y would close in Newark and move to the suburbs, and the federation grew to include those new communities too.
“In 1972, we changed the names to reflect that growth, becoming the Jewish Community Federation of Metropolitan New Jersey.”
During the last quarter of the 20th century, the federation continued to grow. “They adjusted the way they were dispersing money, and who they were giving it to,” Ms. Hershorin said. “They were moving into other areas. The federation established a big commitment to education, so they gave to the Hillel Foundation at Rutgers, to the Hebrew Youth Academy, and to the Solomon Schechter School” — now the Golda Och Academy — “and they became beneficiary agencies. They also made a commitment to mental health.”
As allocation patterns changed, so did the demographics. “People moved to new areas; not just to Livingston or West Orange but further out — to Morristown, Dover, Newton, Parsippany. A whole other federation was established to accommodate them.” That was the Morris Sussex Jewish Federation, created in 1973. “At that point, it wasn’t connected to the Essex County federation,” Ms. Hershorin said. “But there were influential local people who helped establish it, like Seymour Epstein of Epstein’s Department Store in Morristown, who became the federation’s first president.
“They didn’t really have a building,” she added. “They worked out of a business office, but it was really without walls; they met in gyms, basements, places like that. In 1983, they merged with us.”
That meant, of course, a new name. In 1983, the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest came into being.
“The 1980s were good,” Ms. Hershorin said. “We opened senior housing with the Jewish Community Housing Corporation.” The corporation now manages almost 500 apartments in four communities — two in South Orange, one in West Orange, and one in Whippany.
“One thing stands out,” Ms. Hershorin said. “The organization kept everything central to control fundraising. That’s the key to its success.”
The 1980s also saw a huge push for Soviet Jewry, which had started decades earlier but continued to intensify. “We had busloads of people going to rallies in D.C.,” Ms. Hershorin said. She talked with great pride about Jackie Levine, a tireless activist who fought for desegregation and against the war in Vietnam, and also led the Jewish community from her home in MetroWest. “She was the head of the women’s division of the American Jewish Congress,” Ms. Hershorin said. “She pushed for women’s rights. She was an amazing woman.”
The federation also worked for Ethiopian Jews. “We raised $20 million in 1990,” Ms. Hershorin said. “We help our partner communities in Israel; we particularly help them open schools. We have been re-envisioning Jewish education and created the Partnership for Jewish Learning.”
And yes, there was another name change. In 2002, the organization became the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.
Meanwhile, something extraordinary happened at the Central federation.
“A shlubby guy walks in and says that he wants to talk to the CEO,” Ms. Hershorin said. The staff took one look at him; that’s all it took to assure them that the CEO wouldn’t want to talk to him. “So they said, ‘Sorry. He’s out to lunch.’” But the shabby man was persistent. He said, “My name is Mack Ness. I am a farmer. I want you to be the sole beneficiary of my estate — which is in the millions.”
That was true. It was. Mr. Ness, the possessor of an appropriate name — Ness means miracle in Hebrew — was a reclusive bachelor farmer in Watchung, who was close to 90, amassed a fortune — about $15 million — was Jewish but had no connections to the community, and wanted to give it away, mainly for tax reasons, although he’d be dead by the time that mattered. He chose the federation, stipulated that it all should go to Israel, and gave it away as he said he would. His money endowed the Ness Loan Fund for the Negev.
In 2012, the Central federation merged with MetroWest, and the combined group took on the name that it’s had since then — it’s the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ now.
The community the federation serves is huge — it encompasses about 56,800 families, including about 29,700 children. It supports a range of agencies, including the extraordinary JESPY House, and the community’s four day schools. The range of its programs, partner agencies, and activities, along with statistics about its programs and much more, is available on its website, jfedgmw.org.
Warren Grover, who has lived in West Orange for more than 40 years and then moved to Short Hills, was born in Newark in 1938. He is a businessman who retired early to become a self-taught historian; his passion for his community resulted in “Nazis in Newark,” a meticulously researched, densely fact-packed, critically acclaimed work about his hometown. It explores the Nazis who tried to find a niche for themselves in Newark and the Jewish toughs, many of them former boxers, who kept them out, if necessary, with their fists.
He’s been affiliated with the federation for as long as he can remember. His wife, Andrea Peck Grover, shares that long-term affiliation, which they both got from their parents.
“My wife and I both remember our fathers, early on, probably in the 1960s, used to knock on the doors of people they knew and solicit for UJA.”
They didn’t give an advance warning; they didn’t call for an appointment. They just knocked, went inside, and solicited. Successfully. “Those were different days,” Mr. Grover said. “You couldn’t do that now.”
Of course, it didn’t always work, even back then. “My father-in-law, Louis Peck, and his family lived in Newstead, in South Orange, and he went door to door there. Some guy opened the door, and he wasn’t quite dressed, and he told him to get the f*** out of there,” he recalled.
But most of the time the encounters were far more pleasant, he said.
Mr. Grover also remembers how he became involved. “Murray Granat, a great, great man, was active in UJA, and he was my accountant, because he was my father-in-law’s accountant.” Mr. Grover was in business with Mr. Peck. “It was 1971. He was doing my tax return, and I had done well, thank God, and he says, ‘Warren, I’m going to make a mensch out of you.’ I said okay, and he said, ‘I want you to give $1,000 to UJA.’
“$1,000 doesn’t mean a lot today, but in 1971, for a young guy, it was enough.
“Murray had just started working for me, and he saw my books, and he knew that I was a comer,” Mr. Grover continued. “That started my journey with UJA — and it continues to this day.”
For many years, Mr. Grover was active as a volunteer; he’s scaled back on the time he spends now, but not on the money he gives. A few years ago, he gave a major gift, which he chose not to publicize. “I did it for myself, and for the Jewish community,” he said. “I didn’t need the publicity.”
But the community does need the federation, he continued. “I am a fierce defender of the federation. I know how the money is spent. I have seen the agencies. I had a beloved brother-in-law, Merritt Peck, who was handicapped. He used to go to JESPY. They helped him. They help everyone who needs help.”
Jane Wilf of Livingston is the chair of the centennial committee.
“We are celebrating our first 100 years, and there is nothing more important than that,” she said. “We have had our federation for 100 years, and to be able to celebrate it, to look back and see how far we have come, to see our traditions — not every community can do that. Not every community can say that they’ve been there.
“We continue to fight forward, to show our children and grandchildren that we were here, are still here, and we will continue to be here.”
She is clear about what the federation does. “We take care of one another. We take care of the needy. We celebrate. We do good. That’s what Jews do for one another.”
She talked about how JESPY House clients joined other MetroWesters on the federation’s recent centennial trip to Israel. “There was nothing like seeing the smiles on their faces, because they were part of the entire community,” Ms. Wilf said.
She volunteers her time, she added, and she finds that she gets as much as she gives from that work. “During covid, every Friday my four children and I would go to the Kushner Academy, pick up meals, and deliver them to the elderly. That went on no matter what, even though it was during covid,” she said.
“The reason that ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ came to mind is the song ‘Tradition.’ It’s very important to highlight tradition, and I thought it would be incredible to bring it to the community. And it’s incredible to be able to have it open so that anyone in the community can come to celebrate with us.”
Who: Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene
What: Is bringing the company to perform songs from the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s kickoff centennial celebration
When: On Wednesday, October 11, at 6:30.
Where: At Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston
For tickets and more information: Go to the federation’s website, jfedgmw.org, click on the Centennial link at the top, and follow links from there.
What Zalmen Mlotek says about the evening:
“I’m bringing the whole company to Livingston,” he said. “The phenomenon of ‘Fiddler’ in Yiddish was such a lightning rod in the community. So many people saw it, and there is so much regret among the people who didn’t see it.”
A word of explanation — “Fiddler” ran at the Folksbiene’s theater, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower — actually lowest — Manhattan in 2018; the run was extended time after time, and then eventually it moved to Off Broadway for a limited run. Plans called for companies to take it on the road across this country, to Australia, and possibly even to China.
It was an extraordinary production. No doubt it had enormous resonance for people who understand Yiddish, but even for those of us who do not, the simplicity of the production, the vast talent of the people both on and backstage, and the emotional directness of the story made it deeply moving, and at times shattering.
And then covid shut everything down.
“It is our desire to bring it back, so the thousands of Jews in North America — and non-Jews as well, because you don’t have to be Jewish — can have the experience,” Mr. Mlotek said.
“The fact that the federation’s centennial committee has asked us to do it is a testimony not only to ‘Fiddler’ itself, but to the idea of hearing it in Yiddish.”
The October 11 presentation will feature 16 cast members and the orchestra; it will be a concert version, and include six or seven songs, Mr. Mlotek said. It will have supertitles.
“It’s both backward and forward looking, and it will offer the poignancy of hearing the songs you know in Yiddish. It is not ‘Fiddler’ again; it’s ‘Fiddler’ in a way that you’ve never heard it before. It’s taking Sholem Aleichem’s urtext and spinning it, using the genius of Bock and Harnick.” (That’s the composer Jerry Bock and the lyricist Sheldon Harnick.)
As the production brings together the past and the future while being firmly planted in the present, as it ends in both pain and hope, as it deals with issues that still are present today but offers us a slight change of angle to help us consider them, “Fiddler on the Roof,” in Yiddish, seems a wonderful way to start the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s second century.