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Telling the community’s stories

Linda Forgosh moves on from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest

Maybe it’s ironic, or maybe it makes sense.

When you talk to Linda Forgosh, who is retiring as the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest, you don’t get much of her own story. She’s not terribly interested in her personal history.

What she cares about deeply, what she wants to talk about, what she has devoted her life to doing, is unearthing, contextualizing, and popularizing history. That’s what she wants to focus on.

But still, where does the urge to do history — to be not so much an academic historian, although she’s the author of a deeply researched work of history, “Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist”; there’ll be more about both the book and the man later in the story — come from?

Linda Forgosh stands by a display of Philip Roth memorabilia.
(Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

“I loved history from the time I was in seventh grade,” Ms. Forgosh said. She went to school in Avenel — “I’m pure Jersey,” she said — and “I loved my history teacher. I can remember her first name, Katherine, but not her last name. But I still her in my mind’s eye.”

There actually was some personal history involved. Her father died very young, even before she could know him, so Linda, an only child, and her mother lived close to her mother’s family. “As my mother told the story, her family came to America at the time of the Civil War, and they settled in Avenel. There were no Jews there.”

By the time she came along, “my grandfather had opened an ornamental concrete company there. He made things like birdbaths, and it was my pleasure to keep him company.

“I knew that I was my grandfather’s favorite,” she added. “To my cousins’ chagrin.”

She went to high school in Woodbridge, “where I took a course in current events, which I loved, and I was tapped for the National Honor Society.” She went to Rider University — she had other ideas, but her mother didn’t like them, because they involved single-sex schools. “Who would I meet there?” A teachers college similarly was nixed, with the same question.

The children’s ward at Newark Beth Israel Hospital 1902. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

“I got a fine education at Rider,” Ms. Forgosh said. “An education is as good as the effort you put into it.” She put in a great deal of effort, double majoring in English and history. Although trying hard didn’t help her in math or physics, “even so, I graduated number two in the class.”

Right after college, “I got married, and I put my husband through law school, as was typical for the time. I got a Ph.T. — putting hubby through. And I had my two children by the time I was 28.”

That was all pretty par for that time’s course.

Ms. Forgosh’s passion for American Jewish history — necessarily no more than a few hundred years old — also was fueled by six months she spent in Israel, exploring history millennia older. In 1988, with her children away for the summer, “I was living in the Old City in Jerusalem, working as an all-purpose Gal Friday on an archeological dig that eventually led to the construction of the Siebenberg House Museum.” The house’s owner, Theo Siebenberg, a Holocaust refugee, was consumed with the desire to find out what antiquities — and therefore what history — might be hidden under his house, so he began a dig. He was right. There were fascinating story-telling objects below the house illuminated three periods of Jewish history.

In 1917, this Buy Bonds rally was held on the steps of L. Bamberger & Co. in Newark. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

Ms. Forgosh learned a great deal there, about how to find history and how to retell its stories. She got the job, she said, from connections, relatives in Israel who had relatives in New York. “They knew that I really wanted to be in Israel,” she said.

Even beyond that, “the nice thing is that all Jews are connected,” Ms. Forgosh said. That’s how she got the job; that’s how she builds the communities that help her work in New Jersey, and that’s how the communities grew in the first place.

When she got back home, with the digs much in the news, she gave public talks about her experience.

But then, “I really missed academia so I decided to go to Seton Hall in South Orange for my master’s degree in American studies.”

That was a smart move for the budding historian. One of her professors, Edward Shapiro — the well-known, Harvard-trained historian who specialized in both American and American Jewish history — “was a taskmaster, and I had a straight A average, because my philosophy is why take second best when you can get first?”

This annual outing for Morristown’s Speedwell Avenue merchants was in 1917. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

The two — the professor and student — respected each other. They didn’t stay in touch, “but he gave talks in the community, all around the community, and I went to all of them.

“And then, on erev Rosh Hashanah 1999, my phone rings, and it’s Ed, saying ‘Do I have a job for you!’

“He was on the board of the Jewish Historical Society, and they were looking for somebody to be the outreach director for Morris and Sussex counties. The board at that time primarily was made of people who came from Newark, and who didn’t understand that there was life on the other side of 287.”

Back then, Ms. Forgosh lived in Short Hills; she was active in the Millburn/Short Hills section of the National Council of Jewish Women, becoming its president, and she became a life member of Hadassah. She belonged to Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. That was the Jewish part of her life. “My Jewish connection always was there,” she said. She also followed her interest in historic preservation. As chair of the Millburn/Short Hills Historic Preservation Commission in the early 1990s, she looked at deeds, dating back a century or so, that read “No Jews allowed.” “Short Hills was not initially that welcoming to Jews,” she said.

Dr. William Lewin ran the Photoplay Club at Weequahic High School from 1933 to 1955. Here, he’s on the set of “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.

After 38 years in Essex county, she moved to Morristown.

So when she got the call from Dr. Shapiro, she was ready for it.

“I think to myself, ‘Well, I’ll try the interview.’ And I did. And I got the job.”

She and her interviewer, the historian Warren Grover of Short Hills, who not only was the author of “Nazis in Newark” and a member of the boards of the New Jersey Historical Society and the Newark Historical Society, which he cofounded, but also was the president of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest. That, of course, was the agency offering the job for which Ms. Forgosh was interviewing. And Mr. Grover, of course, like Ms. Forgosh had credentials and experience in both local history and local Jewish history.

Both Ms. Forgosh and Mr. Grover remember the meeting vividly. “It was at a Starbucks in Millburn!” they both say in separate interviews. “To this day, if I meet a friend at that Starbucks, we sit at what I call my million-dollar table,” Ms. Forgosh said.

Louis Bamberger

“At the end of the interview, Warren said, ‘Yeah, you’d be good at this job.’”

She got it.

Mr. Grover was right in his initial assessment of Ms. Forgosh, he said more than two decades later. Not only did she have the academic credentials, “she has the right personality for the job.

“She’s persistent, she knows how to question people, and she knows how to gain their confidence. People want to talk to her.”

New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who graduated from Weequahic High School, holds a copy of Linda Forgosh’s book on Louis Bamberger.

Also, he added, “she has the instincts of a historian.”

When she began her job, “my assignment was to find out about Jewish life in Morris and Sussex,” she said. “It appealed to me. What did I know about Morristown? I knew that there is no place more historic.” Known as the “Capital of the American Revolution,” it’s the place where General George Washington conceived of much of his campaign, and it was his winter headquarters.

“So I started the engine of my car, and I drove 720 miles. That’s how many miles comprise the roads in Morris County.

“That took me to all the synagogues, to private homes, to gatherings and meetings with everyone who had connection to assorted important or early founding members of the Jewish community.

“I concentrated on six communities in Morris and Sussex that each had synagogues that were 100 or more years old. That was the Morristown Jewish Center, the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, the Pine Brook Jewish Center, Sons of Israel in Newton, and a shul in Dover that no longer exists.”

Albert Einstein explains his theory of relativity at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

That got her to an aside about Mount Freedom; “hotels there, primarily Jewish hotels, flourished; the last of the large, well-known hotels closed in 1987.” The town had been marketed successfully as a vacation spot, “until Route 17 and airplane travel did it in,” she said. Until then, it was a little bit of the Catskills in Jersey.

“I made every effort to gather every document,” Ms. Forgosh said. “I dealt mostly with executive directors of synagogues.” She created a resource guide, “which is very unusual for any Jewish historical society of similar size, with similar financial resources, to do. This was a rare accomplishment.” The book was called “The Jews of Morris and Sussex: A Brief History and Source Guide.”

Ms. Forgosh was able to create that source guide by finding files that might have been forgotten or overlooked; she also convinced most of those files’ custodians to let her, well, “I can’t say literally that I escaped with them, but that’s pretty much what happened. I did it with the rabbis’ understanding that if you didn’t preserve them in a climate-controlled environment, pretty much they will be gone.”

In fact, she said, everything she does is based on personal relationships, and on trust. “That’s the secret,” she said.

People stand outside the Talmud Torah on Osborne Terrace in Newark.
(Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

One of her most successful exhibits, once she became the organization’s executive director — and there have been many, they’ve been a staple of her work, and of her outreach — was “Born at the Beth,” about the thousands of babies born in Newark at Beth Israel Medical Center, which opened in 1901. She’d send a photo and caption to the New Jersey Jewish News every single week, “year in and year out,” and it generally would be accompanied by a request for information or documents. For “Born at the Beth,” “I asked people to please send me your birth certificate or a photo of you when you were a baby.”

They did.

“Our mission statement was that we will preserve and make available the history of Jewish life in Essex, Morris, Union, Franklin, Sussex, and portions of Somerset counties to researchers and to the Jewish community, and we did,” she said.

She wrote grants, and “I did all the outreach, which consisted of promoting what we did. I also did public forums, where we had speakers of Jewish or general interest.”

And the thing is that although Newark’s Jewish history is deep and long and idiosyncratic and fascinating, the city’s proximity to New York, which would dwarf almost any other city in the world, has kept it overshadowed. Many people know some of its history — Philip Roth put it on the map, if not necessarily flatteringly or even accurately — and its mythic but hard-for-outsiders-to-spell-and-even-harder-to-pronounce Jewish neighborhood, Weequahic, has made its way into hearts, minds, and memories, but there is much that still remains to unpack, at least for those outsiders.

The intersection of Broad and Market Streets in Newark was called the busiest intersection in America. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

One of Newark’s most prominent citizens was Louis Bamberger, the brilliant, transformational, shy, philanthropic, never-married, family centric, public-spirited, and ultimately enigmatic merchant whose influence shaped his city and extended far beyond it.

It was Louis Bamberger who rescued Albert Einstein from Europe and established the Princeton-adjacent but not Princeton-affiliated Institute for Advanced Study where Einstein and so many other scientific geniuses worked. Bamberger founded the Newark Historical Society, supported Beth Israel Hospital (as it was called before it graduated to being a medical center) and helped get Jews out of Nazi Europe. “But if you asked Bamberger to give a public speech, it would be akin to asking him to get a root canal,” Ms. Forgosh said. “And he’d probably be more likely to say no to the public speaking.”

Despite the popular assumption that the Thanksgiving Day Parade originated in Manhattan, as the brilliant idea of someone who worked for Macy’s, that’s wrong, Ms. Forgosh said. “It was Louis Bamberger’s parade. That set the precedent. I can document it.”

Much of Ms. Forgosh’s work focused on Bamberger and his Newark, but she also delved into the very different suburbs and farther-away towns.

These two women are suffragist Augusta Parsonnet and medical student Jennie Danzis. Their husbands, surgeons Dr. Victor Parsonnet and Dr. Max Danzis, were among the founders of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

“I developed an interest in the landsmanschaften and the vereins” — social, mutual-aid, and burial societies built by immigrants for people from their own towns; the landsmanschaften were for eastern Europeans, while the Germans called their groups vereins. “It was like being able to take the Old World to the New World, like East meets West.”

She talks fondly about all the many traveling exhibits she’s put together; when she talks about “Who’s Minding the Store?’” it quickly becomes clear that it’s one of her favorites. The biggest local supermarket chains until recently — Kings, ShopRite, and Pathmark— all had Jewish owners, and all grew from mom and pop shops to the gargantuan chains they became (before they were bought out by even bigger conglomerates).

“Synagogues of Newark” was a blockbuster; it will be reprised soon.

In 2017, Ms. Forgosh won the Charles Cummings Award, granted by the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee. She was honored for “her efforts to research, showcase, and preserve Newark’s history,” and that honor touched her deeply.

Still, she said, it’s all about relationships, and the way that history can illuminate and even revive them. “One story that will stay with me forever is the result of a photo caption,” she said. The story, which was headlined “Lost and found: the tale of the mystery tallitot” when Johanna Ginsburg wrote about it in the New Jersey Jewish News in 2018, told the story of a woman who discovered two tallitot, a kiddush cup, a siddur, and other Jewish objects in the locked drawer of an elaborate buffet that had been donated to Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Randolph. There were names on the tallitot — Michael Levine and Scott Levine.

This iconic photo shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his friend and supporter Rabbi Joachim Prinz of TEmple B’nai Abraham, then in Newark, in 1963. (Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest and the Howard Kiesel Memorial Archives)

The woman who found them, Ellie Wasserman, a volunteer, wanted to return them, but searching for Levines in the Jewish community is like looking for Smiths outside it. She couldn’t find them.

Then Linda Forgosh put a photo of the found objects in her official New Jersey Jewish News column, the story made its way to Florida and back, and the Levine brothers surfaced. One had just died; the other, along with the rest of the family, was astonished and grateful.

“The standard phrase is that the community has been built on the shoulders of others, and so it has been,” she said. “I admire their accomplishments. I admire the way they were community leaders, and the way they lived Jewish lives.”

Just a few months ago, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest entered a new phase; it’s become an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

And at the end of the year, Linda Forgosh will retire. But she’s not giving up her work; she’s just going about it slightly differently. “I’m leaving because it’s time to retire,” she said. “My children said, ‘You’ve been a caretaker all your life. Now it’s your time to do the things you want to do.

“The top of my list is that I want to be in Israel for a period of time.”

But after that, “I want to get my lecture bureau, Lectures Unlimited, up and running. I will be the sole speaker; I will be billed as author and researcher and speaker on subjects of both Jewish non-Jewish life, focusing primarily on Jewish life in northern New Jersey.”

Given how much she knows about the community already, and how the relationships she’s fostered continue to flourish, there’s little doubt that she will be able to continue her work, doing both research and outreach, as she leaves the historical society and moves forward.

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