Hanukkah lighting highlights Jewish role in Newark life

On the sixth day of the eight days of Hanukkah, the traditional menorah ceremonially lit in the marble rotunda of Newark's City Hall flickered to life in commemoration of an unlikely Jewish military victory over their ancient enemies before the Christian era.

But for the people of modern-day Newark, Hanukkah serves not just as a testament to Jewish endurance against all the odds. It's also a reminder that the Jewish community is stitched deep into Newark's history and future.

"There is an important purpose for the Hanukkah celebration here. It's for the Jews who still live in Newark, and for those Jews who come into the city to work. But even more importantly, it's for the non-Jews," said Miles Berger, the CEO of The Berger Organization, a privately owned diversified real estate company involved in the development and management of residential, commercial and hospitality properties throughout Newark.

Berger has supported the city's Hanukkah celebrations for more than 25 years.

"The menorah symbolically lights the world. We continue to light it in Newark because we think it's important for our neighbors to see and understand, especially the young, the holidays of different peoples," Berger said.

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Issac Frankel, Jewish chaplain for the Newark police and fire departments, lights a candle on the sixth day of Hanukkah. He is flanked by Rabbi Levi Block (left), head of the Chabad Torah Center, in Newark and Newark real estate developer Miles Berger (right). 

Rabbi Levi Block, head of the Chabad Torah Center, part of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, further put the holiday into perspective.

"Hanukkah shows us how a little can go a long way," said Block, a reference to how the first menorah continued to glow long after its light should have expired. "Our faith can help us make the most of whatever we have. Everybody in America can understand defending the rights of others to practice their faith. That's our common creed."

Jews have been a major part of Newark's common civic history for decades.

The Weequahic neighborhood in the city's South Ward had long been home to Jewish immigrants, many who had survived the Holocaust. Weequahic is dotted with synagogues, though many have been repurposed as Christian churches since Jews began moving out in the late 1960s.

During the 1960s, Weequahic High School was largely Jewish and the school was considered one of the best in the state. In 1963, it was ranked first in New Jersey and 56th in the nation in the number of graduates who had earned a doctorate during the preceding five years. In 1964, it had more National Merit Scholars than any high school in the tri-state area.

Philip Roth, a native Newarker and 1950 graduate of Weequahic High School, was inspired by his boyhood home in the Weequahic neighborhood, a love that generated Pulitzer Prize-winning literature. Roth recently donated his personal book collection to the Newark Public Library.

Allen Ginsberg, the influential Beat Generation poet, was born in Newark and is buried in the city. His poem "Howl" is part of the canon of American literary art.

Abner "Longie" Zwillman was an underworld legend, an infamous gangster who ran Newark's Jewish mob during Prohibition and beyond. But he also backed a group known as the Minutemen, a group of tough Jews who literally beat back Nazi sympathizers in the streets of 1930s Newark.

Louis Bamberger, on the other hand, was the most legitimate businessman and philanthropist of 20th century Newark. His namesake department store was a downtown fixture for decades, and he helped his sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, to fund the planting of the iconic cherry trees that blossom in Branch Brook Park every spring.

Hobby's Deli has been open since the early 1960s, providing potato pancakes, chicken soup and over-stuffed corned beef sandwiches, washed down with Dr. Brown's soda.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka reflected on how the considerable and complex contributions of the city's Jewish community has shaped New Jersey's most populous city.

"You can't tell the history of Newark without mentioning the Jewish community. It would be like mentioning Newark without the Irish or African-American communities," Baraka said.

"This city is robust with all of the cultures that come here because it's a port city," Baraka said. "They build their families here and grow here. Their footprints and fingerprints are all over this town. Everybody has a story, and these stories make Newark a magical place."

Marty Weber's success story is part of both community continuity and economic opportunity in a changing downtown Newark. Weber, an Orthodox Jew, owns the Green Chicpea, a Kosher restaurant serving Middle Eastern food on Halsey Street that feeds many hungry Rutgers students, Prudential executives and construction workers building up the city's core.

A second look on any given weekday outside the restaurant reveals something else: a stream of Orthodox Jews, many wearing the distinct attire of their faith, coming in for lunch.

"They were just in hiding because they had no place to go eat. Now, the fact that there is a Kosher place, everybody is coming out," said Weber. "But when my wife and I opened up this restaurant, we didn't look at it as a Kosher restaurant. It's an extension of who we are, and we are true to who we are.

"The new Newark is a mixture, a melting pot. Whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, it doesn't matter," Weber added. "The fact is that Newark is finally economically and physically on the rebound. It all meshes together now, and it all adds value to the community."

As the menorah was being lit, Seth Wainer, the City of Newark's chief information officer and director of information technology, looked on with his wife and two young children. While his community has greatly dissipated in the last several decades, for Wainer, 32, a young Jewish man with a young family, the past, present and future of the Jews of Newark is clear.

There are two active synagogues in Newark, the numbers of their congregations steadily growing. But for Wainer, there is even more ingrained evidence of the Jewish presence before his eyes.

"We just opened up a tech academy over on Hawthrone Avenue, down in the South Ward off of Clinton Place," Wainer said. "If you walk across the street, there's Bragman's Deli, where you can still get a good pastrami sandwich. Newark is like the rest of American cities - the layers of culture are there. If you know where you are, the history is there, and you can see the future to come. You can see it in every street."

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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaks with Seth Wainer, the City of Newark's chief information officer and director of information technology, after the the city's Hanukkah celebration along with Wainer's daughter and son.

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