Renovating B’nai Jeshurun

Renovating B’nai Jeshurun

Father-son pair brings new life to stunning old Newark building

B’nai Jeshurun’s stunning old building in Newark is being renovated.(Lewis Stone)
B’nai Jeshurun’s stunning old building in Newark is being renovated.(Lewis Stone)

The building is on an unprepossessing street in Newark.

Not the post-uprising Newark that lurks in your imagination; this neighborhood looks more like one of the forgotten sections of outer-borough New York, low-rise, fairly low-density, with some bottles and crumpled empty snack bags glittering from patches of grass, and little trees growing from cracks in the sidewalk.

The building itself, if you don’t look at it closely, looks unappealing. It’s fenced off and gray. It doesn’t look welcoming.

Then you walk inside, and as developer Gershon Matiteeb said, your hair stands on end.

You find yourself in a vast space — really a series of vast spaces, but you don’t know that yet – of brick and wood; of trusses from Bethlehem Steel, and you know that because the company’s name and the year, 1914, still are visible; of stained glass and angles and curves; of balconies and a vast arch of brick that circles up impossibly high to the dome. Of four Jewish stars inlaid into the corners of the sanctuary, and the Hebrew words of the Shema spelled out in an arch where the bimah once stood.

Father-son team is restoring B’nai Jeshurun’s majestic old home in Newark

You walk up and then out, to century-old terra-cotta roof tiles and sunlight and views of the city and the port.

You are in a place of extraordinary beauty.

You are in the building that Congregation B’nai Jeshurun built for itself in 1914.

The synagogue, one of Newark’s three grand Jewish shuls — the other two were Temple B’nai Abraham, now in Livingston, and Oheb Shalom Congregation, now in South Orange — housed a community that relocated in Short Hills in the late 1960s; the move was completed soon after the uprising but had begun years before it.

The community of B’nai Jeshurun is the second oldest in New Jersey; it was formed in 1848 as an Orthodox kehillah, although it became Reform long ago. It moved from members’ homes to meet at the city’s First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church until 1914, when its new building opened.

After B’nai Jeshurun moved to Short Hills, the building became home to the Hopewell Baptist Church; after the church moved out, an adult day care center moved in. The building deteriorated. Homeless people moved in. Hope moved out.

Adam Matiteeb, at left, with Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission members Matt Gosser, Michelle Butchko, Phil Yourish, and Mark Gordon. (Photo by Lewis Stone)

And then the Matiteebs — Gershon and Adam, father and son — came in.

They are renovating the building; they plan to make it an event space. When they are done, they said, the huge building will be as beautiful as it was at its peak; it has become sacred to them.

This is a business for them, but it is far more than a business. It is a burning passion.

Gershon Matiteeb was born in Dagestan, one of what then was a Soviet republic; his family came from another Soviet republic, Azerbaijan. They came from a city called Quba — also known as the Red City or the Small Jerusalem — home to the largest group of Mountain Jews in the world. The Mountain Jews — or Gorski Jews — are long-ago Persian Jews who migrated to the Caucasus. In 1975, when Mr. Matiteeb was about 10 years old, his parents took him and his siblings from Quba to Israel. Mr. Matiteeb eventually moved from Israel — after having been a platoon leader in Israel’s air force, in charge of training new recruits, his son said —to Brooklyn, where much of the Gorski community lives, and where his son was born.

Gershon was a machinist in the IDF, and he began his career in the United States as an auto mechanic; he quickly built up his business, and turned from selling parts to selling buildings. Gregarious, clear-eyed, and hands-on, he had an aptitude for sizing up people and property. The family now lives in Queens — even when he working in the family business in Baltimore, “I would go down there on Sunday, and come home for Shabbat dinner every week,” Adam said. “That was very important.”

This is a detail from the words of the Shema that curve over the bimah. (Lewis Stone)

Adam went to James Madison High School in Brooklyn, and then to John Jay College in Manhattan, where he earned a degree in criminal justice and planned to go on to law school. But real estate was more interesting.

As soon as Adam was old enough, he went to work for his father.

The family business began on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn and soon moved to Baltimore, but eventually Gershon and Adam found themselves in Newark. They renovated a building that housed a charter school run by an organization called La Casa de Don Pedro. “They have about 15 charter schools in Newark,” Adam said. “We were wary at first about coming to the south of Newark, but I saw schools in Newark that were kids in the basement, sitting at four cafeteria tables, and that was their school and that was their playground. And we were able to build a 300-child child-care facility in Newark, on Elizabeth Avenue.

“Now, the little kids finally have a place. Some of them are toddlers, and they have normal cribs and good water and all those things, those basic things that kids need.” Now, he said, they have much more than that. “It’s a beautiful facility.”

Back in 1999, when Adam still was in elementary school, Gershon saw the synagogue building for the first time. “I got to it accidentally,” he said. “It still was a church. And I looked around, and thought, ‘What is this? This is a magen David. These words say ‘Shema Yisrael.’ I told myself that if ever I have a chance to buy this, I will.”

What did he feel when he first saw it?

In the old sanctuary, the central dome is ringed by windows and stars. (Lewis Stone)

Gershon Matiteeb extended his arm. “All the hair here, it all stood up,” he said. And back then, he cried.

“I am Jewish,” he said. “So my reaction was different than it would have been otherwise.

“I also think that if you come from Quba, and you have the chance to get out, to go to Israel, and then later to fly another 5,000 miles to New York, and then have an opportunity to see this building — yes, you have goosebumps,” Adam broke in. “This is the culmination of everything you have been doing for the last 30 years of your life.”

“You come to Newark, and you come to a place that has four Jewish stars, one in each corner,” Gershon said. “You are a Jew, 0.2 percent in the world, and you are in a place that is so marvelous that you cannot believe your eyes.”

So he wanted to buy it, to fix it, to turn it into a place where other people celebrate and marvel.

In 2017, the building was up for sale, and he bought it.

This roof will become usable space; the dome, visible in the background, is covered with terra-cotta tiles. (Lewis Stone)

“I tell my son that if you have a dream, make it be big and loud,” he said. “Dream so loud that God can hear you.”

And that was that. “They wanted to demolish the building,” Gershon said. Instead, he bought it, and for the last three and a half years he’s been bringing back its beauty.

“When I first saw it, the whole inside was gray,” Adam said. “I stood on the balcony, and it was just the bare bones. Now, it’s all a beautiful sand color; it was just gray, through years of neglect. Homeless people lived here; it was full of needles and condoms and garbage.”

The building, which is more than 60,000 square feet, now is full of artisans; as we toured it, we stopped by one man who carefully applied glue to wood for insets. We walked by large, thick pieces of wood, scored on one side so they are flexible and can curve. The floors are made of Brazilian cherry, and the finishing on the balconies and other surfaces are red oak. The architectural designs in the building’s brick and stone are being set into the wood as well.

There will be three outdoor spaces, which allow a closer look at the beautiful green terra cotta tiles on the roof; there are different levels and balconies that provide different angles on what’s above and below. There are golden glass windows around the central cupola; on sunny days it’s a sundial, tracking the sun as it moves across the sky. There are highly detailed stained glass windows showing biblical scenes; one of them includes an image of the shul building. They’re by John Landman, a London company.

These stained-glass windows — two of many — are by John Landman of London.(Lewis Stone)

The plan is for the building to be able to host up to five events at one time. And yes, there will be parking; the Matiteebs are negotiating with the city and confident that they’ll come to an agreement. There is empty space all around.

The Matiteebs hope to be open for business in 2023; they say that they have their first booking, a wedding. The bride had hoped to be married in 2022, but once she saw the building, she decided to wait for a year, so that she could be married at B’nai Jeshurun.

There still is one decision to be made, Adam said. The inside top of the dome, 89 feet up, still has an empty space at the top. What will go in there? They don’t know yet, he said.

He shows off the outside of the building. What had seemed like a featureless mass because I hadn’t bothered to look at it revealed itself as a marvel of carved-stone detail. Adam talked about how heavy so many of those stones were, and how much dedication it would have taken to bring them up to the top of the building; as recently as a century ago, there were not the electrical outlets that could let people just plug mechanical devices in. Everything still had to be done, carted up ladders, by hand.

Linda Forgosh is the executive director emerita of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ, and she’s also on Newark’s landmark commission. When she started working with the Matiteebs, she was just finishing up a project, undertaken with Phil Yourish and Max Herman, about Newark’s historic synagogues; that project was exhibited at the JCC MetroWest Aidekman Campus in Whippany and also at the JCC’s West Orange complex.

“B’nai Jeshurun’s history is legend,” Ms. Forgosh said. “It’s the history of Newark’s Jews; among its members are my hero, Louis Bamberger” — in fact, she wrote his biography, “Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist”— “his business partner and brother-in-law, Felix Fuld, who really deserves his own biography, and his sister, Carrie Bamberger Frank Fuld.”

At its Jewish peak, Newark had 43 kehillot — the big three, others that met in shtiebels, and some that got together in people’s houses or at the backs of their stores. “Now there is only one, Ahavath Shalom,” she said. “The others have moved to the suburbs.” The Landmark Commission meets in Ahavath Sholom’s building once a year, she added.

“For its small size, Newark is a giant community,” Ms. Forgosh concluded. “Every community has a story — but this is our story.

Matthew Gewirtz is B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi now. When he got to the shul, 16 years ago, from Manhattan, “a born-and-bred New Yorker,” he knew very little about Newark.

“A member of the congregation, Don Karp, who is like many of that generation in that they feel unbelievably strong connections to Newark and the building, took me on a tour of the city, within the first week that I got there.

“The first stop was the old building.”

Hopewell Baptist still was there then, and “I met the minister, Jason Guice,” Rabbi Gewirtz continued.

Linda Forgosh stands between Adam Matiteeb and his father, Gershon.

“The building was beautiful. And the church took the time and the resources to save the Jewish elements. It wasn’t cheap or easy for them to do that, but they did.

“Dr. Guice asked me what they could do with us. It was almost 15 years ago, and it was close to our 160th anniversary, so I said, ‘If you are really open to it, we would like to celebrate the anniversary by having a Shabbat service in the church.’”

Dr. Guice thought it was a great idea, so it happened. “The only Christian symbol was a cross above the ark, and he said, ‘Let me cover it.’

“So we full-on celebrated our anniversary there. The two living emeriti, Rabbi Barry H. Greene and Cantor Norman Summers, both were alive and well, and they led a good deal of the service. We used the old Union Prayer Book,” the High Reform siddur that many of the movement’s synagogues used until the mid 1970s. “Every assistant and associate rabbi who had served here also came back,” Rabbi Gewirtz said.

“I saw people who are now no longer alive, or who are now very old, come in,” he said. “You could just watch and see how they went from using their two physical eyes to their inner eyes. You could see them going back in time. You could see them going back to the rows where they used to sit, and outside to the stairs where they’d go when they left services — because they were young then, so of course they’d leave.

B’nai Jeshurun’s building in Newark, as it looked when it still functioned as a synagogue. (Courtesy B’nai Jeshurun)

“We saw the fluid nature of tears and smiles that night. It gave me a sense of what it had been.”

He maintained a relationship with Dr. Guice and with the church, and with Newark.

B’nai Jeshurun “has been here,” in Short Hills, “for not quite 60 years, out of almost 175 years. Our history is there, not here; it’s just being made here now.”

He talked about the “complex love affair that generation,” the generation that grew up in Newark, had with the city. It’s complicated by the “Philip Roth trajectory, and the way it all ended. Lots of tough things happened in terms of the city’s changing nature.

“The civil unrest because incredibly difficult for people who really loved that city.” That generation, the people who felt that fierce love in their bones, are aging now. “My current younger members are not Newark people,” he said. “Maybe some of their grandparents are,” but many are new to the area. The pull isn’t there.

But “I spent about five hours in the city of Newark the first week that I moved here, and for the next 10 or so years there was not a week when I wasn’t in the city. I got very involved in the interfaith council, and working with the mayor to bring down the rates of gang violence.”

Even though the shul left the city, the city never really left the shul; the love for it still is strong. And now the old building, newly reimagined, once again can be a magnet for that love.

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