New Jersey Jewish News
An exhibit reaches back to the Civil War to tell the tale of local Jewish pioneers
No tattered maps marked with skull and crossbones point to where the treasure lies hidden. The search for evidence of a vibrant and early Jewish presence in Morris and Sussex counties has all the drama and mystery of a treasure hunt, but instead of buried gold and sea chests filled with jewels, the bounty is moldering cardboard boxes stuffed with paper documents and stashed in attics and basements.
The elements of the hunt may be more prosaic than swashbuckling but that does not diminish the enthusiasm of Linda Forgosh, outreach director and curator of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, who has been on a five-year quest to document the history of 19th-century Jewish settlers in the two counties. She and JHS staff members traveled 7,000 miles over two years, she told NJ Jewish News in her office on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, going back and forth to places like Newton, searching out material in synagogue storerooms, and establishing relations with local historical societies.
The treasure trove including burial records, financial ledgers, synagogue minutes, photographs, and memorabilia, with a special emphasis on Mount Freedom will be on view May 7-June 18 in a new exhibit at the Randolph Museum.
I negotiated for these records for five years, said Forgosh. Ive gotten so much more material since the original standing exhibit The Jews of Morris and Sussex: Early Settlers, Synagogues, Hotel Resorts, and Lake Communities, which was on display last year at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus and will be on display in July at Acorn Hall in Morristown. In its present form, it travels . I can extract portions to display. I know that there are fresh eyes who will see it.
The focus of the complete exhibit is six 100-year-old adjacent communities that date back to the Civil War, towns whose occupants didnt even know about each other, said Forgosh.
Morristown and Newton were market towns, Franklin and Dover developed around the zinc mines, and the earliest Jewish settlers in Pine Brook and Mount Freedom came from the Lower East Side to farm the land. When those would-be farmers discovered they could not make a living, however, they opened their farmhouses to paying guests, building on additional rooms and bringing out family members to help run these newly created summer boarding houses, Forgosh explained. It took two days to reach Mount Freedom from the city by horse and wagon, but people loved the high altitude and clean air.
Thus began the hotel and resort industry that flourished in that area from the 1920s to the 1960s, once boasting nine Jewish hotels and numerous bungalow colonies. Photographs in the exhibit show the hotels and their guests, along with founding families, local entrepreneurs, and prominent philanthropists.
The exhibit commemorates institutions as well, including the history of the 22 synagogues that exist today in these two counties. After population shifts, closings, and mergers, only a few of the original buildings remain. Newer synagogues established after World War II are also part of the story.
When the exhibit goes on the road, Forgosh makes an appeal for additional buried treasures. I have a slide-show program, she said. When I visit synagogues, I try to explain that records and objects in archives equals history. It is an uphill battle to find [the historical evidence] before it disappears and to explain that its better in our climate-controlled archival vault than in a mouse-infested basement. With a mixture of amusement and despair, she added, All the history is in someones shoebox.
Helping her find those shoeboxes, she said, is NJ Jewish News. More people read the Jewish News than you know, she said. It has given me entree to individuals who lived the history, listing the contributions she has received from people living all over the United States who read about her work in this newspaper.
She needs every bit of help she can get, she said. I wish I didnt have to sell it so hard, not the importance but the fact that telling Jewish immigrants story is telling all immigrants stories. It took five years before I got the Pine Brook records dating back to 1903. They had been kept by a one-time synagogue historian, who deeded them to us.
I tell everyone, If you want to keep or manage your records, deed them to us. Then they can be used for exhibits and research. If we dont own them, theyre useless.
The search is ongoing and endless. I save all my e-mail, Forgosh said. Every four months or so, I call up and say, I havent forgotten you. Have you had a chance to look for your parents wedding album? She also advertises: If you have things we might be interested in . She thinks of other MetroWest counties where the hunt has not yet begun and her eyes get a far-off look: Whats in Essex? she asked rhetorically. No ones checking.
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