This is a newsletter about “firsts” and “lasts” …..
We began our July 2014 Newsletter with Francis Salvador, a proud Jew who participated in the drafting of South Carolina’s first State Constitution. Tragically, Salvador was also the first Jew to lose his life in the Revolutionary War. It was he who opened the door to Jewish participation and integration in the New World.*
The “first” great Jewish woman to make her mark in Western society was Rebecca Gratz. Rebecca was born into a large and prosperous family of orthodox Jewish merchants in Philadelphia in 1781. Her father, Michael Gratz, was a leader of Mikveh Israel, the first synagogue in Pennsylvania. Rebecca was said to be strikingly beautiful with irresistible charm and a generous heart. She never married but instead devoted her life to philanthropy. In 1819, she founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society which was the first independent Jewish Philanthropic agency. In 1838 she founded the first Jewish Sunday School in the United States because she realized that Jews in the United States were living in a Christian world and were growing up without knowledge of their own faith. An American-style Hebrew school, it was the first time religious education was open to both boys and girls. In 1855 she also started the first Jewish orphanage in the United States, called the Jewish Foster Home. She wanted an orphanage that did not proselytize while protecting.** Rebecca was considered the first Jewish woman activist in America and in her 88 years accomplished many more “firsts.”
One such “first” occurred when Rebecca, as a young woman, met Washington Irving. She nursed his very ill fiance back to health. So impressed was he by her character that Irving raved about her to Sir Walter Scott. When Sir Scott wrote “Ivanhoe” in 1820, he modeled “Rebecca,” the Jewish heroine, after Ms. Gratz. “Ivanhoe” is thought to be the first favorable depiction of a Jew in English fiction at that time***. More meaningful is that the book refers to injustices against Jews and was written and published during a period of legal restrictions against Jews in England****.
When we were youngsters, we were all fascinated with the concept of a time capsule. In our young minds, we were intrigued with the concept of awakening the past. We wondered how life was lived long ago when times were mysterious and shadowy. Time capsules deepen the vast layers of days gone by while allowing history to catch up with the present. On Sunday, October 19th, we all imagined what it was like to be alive in 1924 when we had the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of witnessing the opening of the time capsule from the Paterson YM/YWHA. If it weren’t for Andrew Almanza, a researcher and friend of the JHSNJ, we would never have known about the time capsule. While working on a personal project, and sifting through records at the Rutgers University Library, he chanced upon an old, deeply buried, news article in the Paterson Evening News about the placement of a time capsule in the cornerstone of the newly built “Y” building on Van Houten Street, in 1924. He brought it to our attention six months ago and urged us to investigate it further. Our Board member, Moe Liss, took off in hot pursuit! In no time he was on the trail looking for the cornerstone wherein the time capsule had lain these past 90 years! As we were later to discover, parallel to the Jewish migration to the suburbs, the cornerstone had been moved from the Paterson location to the new “Y” in Wayne in 1976. In a twist of fate, our Moe had even passed the new location of the cornerstone for 38 years on his way to workouts at the ‘Y’ without ever knowing that historic Paterson treasures were imbedded inside!
After Moe “found” the time capsule, he helped facilitate the big celebration at the “Y” in Wayne, where the capsule had rested undisturbed all those years. Period newspapers, sports tickets, coins and lists from the capsule were then revealed to the crowd by our own professional archivist, Michael Kemezis, in front of 160 attendees. We would like to thank Larry Lev and Joyce Fein of the YMCA for understanding the importance of what this meant to the Jewish community and for hosting the happening.
It was the first time the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has been privileged to partake in such a significant event. Hopefully it won’t be the last. Coincidentally, we understand that on October 19, 1914, exactly 100 years to the day of the “Y” time capsule opening, they laid the cornerstone of the original Barnert Hospital in Paterson which is the current home of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey. Does anyone know where that cornerstone is?
There are no “lasts” to this story because thanks to our preservation efforts at the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey our legacy will continue on and on which is long after we will have departed. However, with Veterans day coming on November 11th we noted in the February 21, 1945 issue of the Paterson, N.J. YM/YWHA Criterion about a “last”: “Daniel Harris, last survivor of about 8,000 Jewish Veterans of the Civil War, dies in Brooklyn at age 99 . . . One of the last living persons who met Lincoln . . . Enlisted in Union forces at seventeen.” Remember that our first Thanksgiving in 1621 was shared with native Americans. Share Thanksgiving with a neighbor this year.
Dorothy Douma Greene, President
* Jewish Notables in America, by Harry Simonhoff
** Rebecca Gratz, by Andree A. Brooks
***History of American Women, by Maggie MacLean