A Celebration of Faith and Tradition: Jewish-American Heritage Month.
The first Jewish immigrants came to this country in 1654, long before it was the United States. The end of the 19th century into the early 20th were a period of tremendous growth. The Jewish population rose from approximately 80,000 in 1880 to 1.5 million in 1920. Jewish contributions to American culture are wide and varied - including the arts, science, politics, and business.
Jewish American Heritage Month was established in 2006 by President George W. Bush as part of a bipartisan effort to educate all Americans about the contributions and achievements of Jewish Americans nationwide. This year’s Presidential proclamation stated, "This month, we celebrate the enduring heritage of Jewish Americans, whose values, culture, and contributions have shaped our character as a Nation. For generations, the story of the Jewish people — one of resilience, faith, and hope in the face of adversity, prejudice, and persecution — has been woven into the fabric of our Nation’s story.” During May 2023, hundreds of organizations and Americans of all backgrounds will be able to discover, explore, and celebrate the American Jewish experience thanks to the Internet and media coverage.
Last week, Clifton residents and neighbors gathered to observe the Jewish holidays of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) with the raising of the Israeli flag on City Hall property.
Clifton residents might remember the story of Rabbi Eugene Markovitz of the Clifton Jewish Center. On Halloween night in 1988, four teenage boys vandalized several sites in Clifton, including the Clifton Jewish Center, Rabbi Markovitz’ garage, a car owned by an elderly Jewish resident, and a kosher meat market. Using blue paint and shaving cream, they scrawled swastikas, Stars of David, and hateful messages. The rampage occurred shortly before the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938 pogrom in which Nazi supporters attacked more than 7,000 Jewish stores and burned 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria, marking the start of the Holocaust. Caught quickly, the New Jersey youths were 13 and 14, the middle-class sons of a police officer, a dentist, a teacher, and a banker. Rabbi Markovitz asked that rather than send the boys to juvenile court, the boys participate in community service, specifically education about the history of Judaism. He said, “One must never give up on young people. In Judaism, it’s literally a crime to do so.” A made-for-television movie told his story in an after-school special called “The Writing on the Wall,” starring Hal Linden as Rabbi Markovitz.
The CJC offers worship services both in person and remotely, via Zoom, adult education classes, a Sisterhood, and a Men’s Club.
Like other religions, there are many variations on a theme, so to speak. You might hear the terms Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, referring to the three most common branches. Very briefly, these terms refer to the degree to which a Jewish person interprets their holy book, the Torah, as being human-created or being the literal word of G-d and the degree to which one follows the laws therein. (Why some Jews use a dash when spelling out G-d.) Torah (תורה) in Hebrew can mean teaching, direction, guidance, and law. The Torah constitutes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Pentateuch, 'five books' in Greek). Other religions may refer to this as the Old Testament but for Jews, it’s just the Torah.
The Reform (or Progressive) movement claims that traditions need to change as the world around us changes. The Conservative movement is best seen as a hybrid of the other two, and Orthodox Jews typically try to follow every one of the 613 commandments laid out in the Torah. Of course, there are many other subsects for each of these. Judaism is a tribal religion and does not require any statement of faith to belong. There are atheists and agnostics who call themselves secular or ethnic Jews, feeling that while they may not believe in God, Judaism is part of their identity.
There are several Yeshivas in what’s considered a “Jewish” part of Clifton, the area near Passaic Avenue bordering Passaic Park. Yeshivas are traditionally schools that focus on a religious education and according to Chabad, a yeshiva is a place where Jews gather to study Torah and rabbinic traditions. Originally referring to an academy for advanced scholars, today the term also refers to schools where Judaic studies comprise a significant portion of the curriculum, starting as young as kindergarten. Most Orthodox families choose a yeshiva over public school, allowing them to ensure that their traditions and beliefs are being supported in their children’s educational experience.
The Clifton Jewish Center, a conservative egalitarian synagogue, has been at 18 Delaware Street for over 70 years and has congregants from all over our area. Clifton no longer has a reform synagogue but there is one nearby - Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. Ner Tamid was recently in the news due to attempted vandalism, when a young Clifton man threw a Molotov cocktail at the front door, which thankfully caused no damage.
Jewish Family Services supports and strengthens the lives of families and individuals through affordable, high-quality mental health and social services. Started in 1948, volunteers helped refugees from Europe get settled in the area by providing furnishings, apartment referrals, food, job opportunities, clothing, language training, and child care. JFS soon hired professional social workers as the refugees’ needs became more complex, and settled into the old YM/YWHA on Scoles Avenue in Clifton. Today, located at 110 Main Avenue in Passaic, they provide comprehensive mental health services for all ages, as well as couples and family therapy, support groups, and aid for those affected by domestic violence.
“Kosher” is more than just a word, it’s a way of life for many Jews, based on commandments in the Torah, and is believed to reference the first food laws on record. Very briefly, there are three categories of foods one can eat – meat, dairy, and “parve,” food that is neither meat nor dairy (produce, nuts, seeds). Pork and shellfish are considered “traif,” or non-Kosher, and meat and dairy cannot be combined. The laws are complex and sometimes, people need guidance in knowing what to buy. Although Seasons Kosher Market will be closing its doors in Clifton in the near future, they do have other branches and are a great resource for our local Jewish population. Years ago, there were numerous Mom and Pop kosher grocery stores and restaurants, but few are still around. One local favorite in Passaic, not too far from Clifton, is the Kosher Konnection. There are many kosher restaurants in Passaic as well, serving everything from bagels to burgers. Note that these establishments are all closed weekly for Shabbat, from Friday evening to after sunset on Saturday. Most do not open again until Sunday.
Clifton is home to a few Jewish cemeteries, including the family-owned King Solomon Memorial Park on Dwasline Road. The Centerville Cemetery, located in the Albion section, is believed to be the oldest Jewish cemetery in New Jersey, dating from 1847. The cemetery, owned by the Barnet Temple in Franklin Lakes, is in ruins but will be restored in the near future. In a Facebook post, Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula wrote, “Sadly, like probably most Clifton residents I never knew this existed…I was very glad to see the Planning Board’s suggestion that these historic properties are identified in our Master Plan.”
So, how can we honor the month? We can work to educate others on antisemitism and honor the Jewish traditions of integrity, respect, kindness, and doing tikun olam - working to repair and improve the world.