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March 2018 Newsletter from the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey

Our newsletters are currently being written by a revolving group of Board members and guest writers drawn from our membership list. We encourage readers who wish to submit prospective future newsletters to do so. Topics can range from neighborhoods, businesses, camps, or community centers and could include family memories or personal experiences you have had in the north Jersey area. Merry Firschein, a member of our Executive Board, has written our March 2018 newsletter.

Ever since I joined the board of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey in June 2017 many people have asked me what my connection is to Paterson. They’re curious as to how I just happened to show up at the December 2016 annual meeting.

Was I born in Paterson, they ask? Did I grow up there? “No,” I answer, “I have no connection to Paterson. I grew up in Wayne; however, I am connected to JHS in a different way.” At that point everyone is curious and I’m happy to tell about my very special link to the JHSNJ.

My mother, Sylvia Firschein, was the co-founder of the JHSNJ, along with Jerry Nathans. My mother was the librarian of the Charles & Bessie Goldman Judaica Library at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, in Wayne, from the time the building opened in 1976 through 1986, when she left for another job. The Jewish Historical Society was founded, among other places, in my childhood home in Wayne, as my mother and Jerry would sit at our dining-room table and discuss and go over notes and try to create something tangible.

Why was the JHS created? Let me take one small step backwards. When the new YM-YWHA facility in Wayne opened in 1976, a room was set aside for a Judaic library and my mother was hired as its first librarian. My mother believed that a Jewish library should embrace all aspects of the Jewish cultural world – books, films, book reviews, and other programming.

As people began to patronize the library, my mother started to know people who would come from surrounding communities – or be brought by minibus from Paterson – she realized that the roots of the Jewish community in Passaic County ran very deep. Keeping that in mind, in 1977, my mother and Jerry started a project to record oral histories and written firsthand accounts of elderly Jewish Patersonians in order to preserve for future generations their reminiscences and tales of growing up in the Silk City and being a part of its huge Jewish community. Volunteers working in groups of two would visit those who wished to be interviewed in their homes.

At that time, an 80-year-old Patersonian could very well remember World War I and its effect on Paterson. That person could very well remember the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 and its effects on his or her family. That person could recall family members working in mills and the birth of the labor movement. Those times were still within living memory. My mother believed that this history of the Jewish community was worth saving and archiving.

By 1980, at monthly board meetings of the Goldman Library Trustees, the Jewish Historical Society and its sister organization, the Jewish Genealogical Society of North Jersey, (which still meets monthly at the Y {now a YMCA} in Wayne), was on my mother’s agenda to be discussed as “adjunct groups” of the Library. Both groups met at the Charles Goldman Judaica Library. My mother organized volunteers who would come to the Library – just like volunteers who now come to the JHS offices in Fair Lawn – to organize photos and papers and other ephemera that the young JHS was receiving. My mother prepared a document, sort of like a ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ for all to follow, about how to create an archive of the Paterson Jewish community.

My mother was very proud of the work that the JHS was doing. At the June 1982 annual luncheon for library volunteers, my mother spoke about the young Jewish Historical Society. “This year, we take special pride in our Oral History Committee, which is preparing a display and brochure on the heritage of the Paterson Jewish community,” she told the group, which included the Y’s executive director, Jerry Okin. At the 1984 luncheon, she recognized the JHS volunteers, represented by Regina Brendzel and Reeva Isaacs, “for being concerned with and being active in preserving the very colorful history of the Paterson Jewish community.”

In December 1983, my mother was interviewed for an article in The Bergen Record about the beginnings of the JHS, the name chosen for this oral history project. “I view the preservation of this material as a way that present generations can pay their debt to the past,” she told the Record reporter. “This archive is a way of recapturing the past and showing its relevance to the future.” At that time, the collection included about 60 oral reminiscences on tape. Those are now safe in our JHSNJ archives.

She told the newspaper reporter that one of the JHS volunteers had stumbled on a priceless item – a photograph taken in 1913 of children of Paterson silk strikers, which led to a reunion of the children at the new Botto House, home of the American Labor Museum, in Haledon.

Every year, my mother would make a presentation on behalf of the library at the YMHA’s annual meeting. In April 1985 she spoke to the Y’s board about the many programs at the library. She said: “Special activities of the library include: The Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey. We have 100+ oral histories of Patersonians; a history of the Paterson Jewry pamphlet is in progress; we have a very active speaker’s bureau including most of the Society’s members.” That small booklet is now safely stored in our archives.

After my mother left her position as librarian at the Goldman Library in 1986 she continued as chairman of the Library Committee until 1999 at which time my parents moved to Florida.My mother died suddenly in 2011 and I am now going through all her papers and files. My mother kept many of her notes about the JHS’s early days.

I am honored to be a part of the Jewish Historical Society, following through on my mother’s work and dedication to the Jewish community of Paterson – and now the greater Jewish community of Passaic, Bergen, and even Hudson counties. I look forward to assisting the JHSNJ in working on its archives and preserving these important memories.

Merry Firschein, Executive Board member of the JHSNJ

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Sylvia Firschein with a library volunteer.


Max Atkins library volunteer presents a check to Sylvia for Friends of The Library on January 1983.

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The photo above was taken at the Paterson Museum on 1/19/1983 regarding an exhibit of the history of the Paterson Jewish community. Left to right – Sylvia Firschein, Jerry Nathans, Tom Peters, Reeva Isaacs.