Museum unveils exhibit telling ‘story of us’

Museum unveils exhibit telling ‘story of us’

Monmouth Jewish timeline confirms ‘common humanity’ of immigrants

Freehold Mayor Lester Preston Jr., third from right, cuts the ribbon marking the exhibit’s official opening; with him are, from left: Jean Klerman, Simon and Bella Zelingher, Rabbi Robert Fierstien, Assemblyman Eric J. Houghtaling, and Michael Berma
Freehold Mayor Lester Preston Jr., third from right, cuts the ribbon marking the exhibit’s official opening; with him are, from left: Jean Klerman, Simon and Bella Zelingher, Rabbi Robert Fierstien, Assemblyman Eric J. Houghtaling, and Michael Berma

More than 10 years after its founding, the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County at last has a permanent core exhibit. On May 21, museum members and supporters turned up at the 19th-century Freehold barn that houses the institution for the opening of “Three Centuries of Growth & Change: A History of the Jews of Monmouth County.”

At the celebration, New Jersey  Assemblyman Eric J. Houghtaling (D-Dist. 11) read a proclamation lauding the museum for telling the story of how a few Jewish settlers who arrived in the early 1700s grew to become a sizable community of farmers, peddlers, retailers, engineers, educators, doctors, lawyers, and more. The area’s Jewish residents, said Houghtaling, eventually helped to make Monmouth “one of the Garden State’s most illustrious counties.” Freehold Township Mayor Lester Preston Jr. cut the ceremonial ribbon.

The afternoon program, under the direction of incoming board member Evett Shulman, included remarks by such museum stalwarts as Jean Klerman and Rabbi Robert Fierstien, cochairs of the History Committee; Bella Scharf Zelingher, Exhibits Committee chair; and Simon Zelingher and Michael Berman, cochairs of the Core Exhibit Committee. 

“This exhibit tells the story of ‘us,’” said Bella Zelingher. Arranged along a long wall, several panels trace the history of the Jews of Monmouth more or less chronologically, but also thematically, in that each era and each panel has a distinct emphasis. 

The “timeline” begins with the immigration of Sephardi Jews between the years 1600 and 1800. 

German immigration was at its height from the 1820s to the 1880s, the exhibit points out. Early synagogues and businesses are featured. It was during this period that the Jersey Shore began to be known as the “Jewish Newport,” where the wealthy “crème de la crème” of German Jews from New York escaped the city’s summer heat.

A wave of Eastern European immigration came between the mid-1880s and mid-1920s. More newcomers arrived after World War II, many of them Holocaust survivors, and in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, younger, native-born Jewish people contributed to Monmouth’s suburban transformation.

“The permanent exhibit will appeal to Jews from all over New Jersey,” said Bella Zelingher. “It is of very high quality, executed by professionals and on par with big-city museum exhibits.” 

Schoolchildren and synagogue groups are specific audiences that the museum hopes to attract, she added. “We have plans to pursue children’s programming and group tours, perhaps combining the opportunity to visit the museum with a brief docent talk on some aspect of Jewish history and a boxed lunch. We hope these visits will elicit interest from both children and adults.” 

Said Simon Zelingher, “My biggest reward for working on this project is to see it become a reality.” During the museum’s first decade, he explained that there had been numerous starts and stops, and he acknowledged that it is no easy task to contain three centuries in approximately 50 feet of linear wall space. 

This time, the institution sought professional help. Howard Green of Public History Partners in Highland Park was named content curator. Working closely with Klerman, Fierstien, and designer Keith Ragone of Keith Ragone Studio in Newfield (near Vineland), he created a script that coordinates the written word with scores of historic images and artifacts from the museum’s collection. Following an editorial review by Carol Fox, the script went to Allen Shanosky, owner of Applied Image, Inc. in Freehold, who donated all the printing and fabrication of the panels and angled reading rails. 

In her remarks, Klerman said, “Because of its longevity and diversity, Monmouth County Jewish history is a true microcosm of the whole American-Jewish experience. 

“In its individual and collective achievements, it illustrates the eagerness and success with which Jewish immigrants embraced the opportunities afforded by a free society. In the richness of its cultural life, it exemplifies the talents and benefits of the inquiring Jewish mind. 

“In its outpouring of story and image,” contnued Klerman, “it proudly ties Jews to their heritage, and for non-Jews it confirms the common humanity and strivings of all immigrant groups.”

An early grant from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey helped get the ball rolling on the permanent exhibit. Museum copresidents Alice Berman and Jeffrey Wolf also cited major contributions from Millhurst Mills’ Bernard “Nardie” Hochberg, Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, CentraState Healthcare System, Saker ShopRite, Monmouth Torah Links, Fulton Bank of New Jersey, the Jay & Linda Grunin Foundation, Joel Opatut Family Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Temptime Corporation, The Charles and Brenda Saka Family Foundation, and dozens of local area residents.

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