By H. Lewis Stone
This has been adapted from a presentation to Sisterhood given on April 26, 2015.
Every organization has an origin story. I grew up in Bergen County in a town called Fair Lawn. The first shul there was actually started by a group of men who wanted to play cards. They wanted to organize a group so they formed the card group first …and the sanctuary came thereafter.
This House of Israel has a different story. Its story revolves around the women of the community. First known as the Ladies Auxiliary and later, as the Sisterhood, they were THE driving force for the creation of this institution. As you will see, without the women, there would be no MJC.
I am not trying to present a complete history of the Morristown Jewish Center; rather I only focus on your organization’s contributions which are substantial. At the end, there will be a homework assignment.
I have organized this talk with a little bit of history for every generation.
We start in the 1890s
This was 1898. Benjamin Harrison was President.
I quote from the speech presented at the 25th anniversary of the LA Sisterhood:
“A sum of 25 dollars was accumulated which was used to purchase a Torah. The first High Holiday services were held at the Mintz home on Race Street. However, three men had to be hired from NY to establish a minyon. The mothers and wives shared equally with the many hardships.”
I imagine one of the hardships was putting up three strangers from NY over the holidays!
The congregation met on Shabbat at the Mintz home on Race Street but rented various halls around town for High Holidays.
This brings us to 1910. They were davening at Miller Hall on South Street. While Kol Nidre services were going on, a committee from the Knights of Columbus came in to notify the congregation that by 6 o’clock they would need to be out as the Hall was needed for their own meeting. A group of women vowed that on their next holiday, they would be in a home of their own. This resulted in the purchase of this site. There was an existing Victorian home on the site. There are no photos of the building but we do have drawing.
In May, 1918, the house was purchased and was adapted. The first floor was made into a sanctuary and the upstairs bedrooms were used as classrooms. We know the building had a porch and a railing because I met a man who came for his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah who would ride his horse to school from Randolph and tie him up at the railing. After class, he would ride home.
That’s also the year that a meeting was held in the home of Mrs. Louis Goldstein. There is a photo of her in the 1929 dedication journal. That is the date of the formal organization of the Ladies Auxiliary of the House of Israel. Mrs. Fisch was elected the first President.
The Ladies Auxiliary raised $1500 for the purchase of an ark.
This brings us to 1921.
At that time, the LA decided that that we had outgrown the building. It took 7 years but in 1928, the LA made the following statement: “If the Congregation did nothing further towards the erection of a new building, this group, under the dynamic force of Mrs. Zam, Mrs., Salny and Mrs. Newmark, they would erect and finance a building to house their needs.” The LA raised $5000 or $70,000 in today’s dollars.
In 1928, the LA organized a Banquet in honor of their 10th anniversary, OK, a little late. This was held in Newark. They raised pledges of $34,000. The largest donor that evening was Felix Fuld. He pledged $1000 or $14,000 in 2015 dollars. And he never lived in Morristown. Does anyone know who he was? He and his brother in law owned a little store.
Mr. Fuld did a lot of charity work including helping in establishing Beth Israel Hospital in Newark and creating the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.
The cornerstone was laid; you have all seen the photo in the Gallery Coatroom. The building was built and the LA donated the first ark. That ark still exists and is used for the children’s High Holiday services in Frigand Hall. They also donated the Ladies lounge and meeting room. That room later became the Office and is now the gift shop.
I always think of the Cornerstone being laid on March 3, 1929. It was the height of the Roaring 20s. The entire original building was built in 10 months. Imagine the atmosphere in the Room at the dedication on November 24…less than a month after the Crash. Imagine the uncertainty in the room.
But that did not stop the LA.
In 1935, Mrs. Schlosser was elected president. She accepted a challenge from the Board of Directors to take on the balance of the Note. The amount still due was $14,000 and in 6 years, in 1941, the note was paid off. Well, at least the first time.
Recently, the former Kirk bride building at Greystone has been in the news because the state is tearing it down despite it being a Historic Building. The LA, under the direction of Mrs. Roth, organized parties for the inmates, today we would call them patients. Our shul also sponsors Seders for the residents.
The war brought new opportunities for service.
The LA participated in the Bundles for Britain program. They also wrapped bandages for the Red Cross.
They raised money for 13 refugee children to be placed in homes for the summer. They sent another 6 to summer camp.
They sent packages to the men AND WOMEN in the Armed Forces.
The LA also collected 50 boxes of clothes and purchased blankets during the war.
In May, 1944, the LA changed its name to Sisterhood.
A word about Mrs. Roth
Mrs. Roth, in addition to the funds her family gave to the shul, made aprons. These aprons were sold as a fund raiser. She also made caps.
Another story about Mrs. Roth: She would be present at the door at the high holidays. She would collect money from those who had not paid for seats. She reportedly would say: “I know it is a sin to carry money on the holiday but let the sin be on MY head”
Today’s focus in Education is STEM. The Sisterhood began funding an award for Morristown High School graduate in the field of Mathematics. That started in 1946 and continued until 2005.
Many of you have seen a plaque dedicated to the five men killed in action in WWII which is displayed in the Coatroom Gallery. That plaque was not placed there by the Jewish War Veterans, who for a time, met in this building, or by the Board of Directors, many of whom served. No, it was funded by Sisterhood in November, 1947. The plaque itself states that it was presented by the Leon Cone Jewish War Veterans Post. It is possible that this was a joint project.
Sisterhood adopted a war orphan. There is no other information about that, but if someone knows something about this, I hope they can let me know.
The gift shop was opened in 1949. Now you know why it did not have a permanent home until the 1990 renovation because it did not exist when the building was designed.
Before we leave the 1940s, I wanted to mention the Newsletter. Herman Rosenberg, who is 97 ½ was the first editor and he gave us originals of the first years. By the way, all of the Originals are at the Jewish Historic Society of New Jersey, whose help has been invaluable in my preparation.
We have Volume 1 Number 1 of the Newsletter. Now I mentioned that the women of the Center took an active role in 1910 when they took the vow to get their own place of worship. Fast forward 30 years. On the right ….above the fold as we used to say before we got our news on a tablet…… there is an article about the LA.
Someone want to read? Just read the first sentence of each paragraph.
Now in this same issue, on the opposite corner is an article about the Men’s Club.
Someone want to read the first two paragraphs?
That was 75 years ago!
This brings us to the 1950s.
I am going to show you Sisterhood life in the 1950s. This 8 mm film was compiled during the 1957 -58 term. If you look carefully, towards the end of the film, you can see the youngest ever assistant Sisterhood President.
I could talk a lot about the 1950s.
Helen Abraham, my Mother-in-law, kept a scrapbook. As you look, you can see a lot of beautiful artwork for the flyers. They are not signed, but I am guessing Lee Weissglass had a hand in the work. She was a local artist of some fame.
In the 50s, not only did the women of MJCBY lead this shul, they were also active in the community. It appears that, at one time, in 1956, MJC women were head of Hadassah, ORT, The Ladies Auxiliary of the Jewish War Veterans, Bnai Brith and the Morristown Link.
In 1960, the “new Wing” was dedicated. The kitchen was paid for by Sisterhood.
In the 1960s, Sisterhood ran many programs; the most successful was the Art-O-Rama. They would get artwork from local artists and sell them. The proceeds would go to Sisterhood. I know we have some artwork in our home from the sale because the Art-o-Rama labels are still on the back. I imagine others might have some also.
The opening of the kitchen led to a more organized Kitchen committee. The kitchen group has yielded a steady stream of income for the Sisterhood which they have used for their own programming and also generously donated to the shul.
In 1978, the Sisterhood gave another $4000 to pay off the mortgage. I am sure there are many of these donations but no one ever recorded them all.
I want to tell a story about Helen Willner. She was married to Judge Willner and their family gave the money in the 1950s to create the Willner Chapel. She was an artist in paint as well as sculpture. Those of you who knew her, knew she had the imposing stature of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In the 1970s, there was some tension in town. Some teens threw rocks through the stained glass windows in the main sanctuary. This is why the windows now have Plexiglas on the exterior. They obtained an estimate to the repair the glass. It was very expensive. Helen came up the idea that…. at half the cost, they would repair the glass with plain glass and she would paint it to match. The windows were completely removed, and releaded in the 1986 renovation. However, you can still see her work. If you look at a window and there seems to be a little piece of glass that is not symmetrical with the other side, THAT was a Helen Willner repair.
I wanted to tell one more Helen Willner story. She made this sculpture for Harold Krauss, former President and a friend of the Willners. Mrs. Willner stopped working in the mid 1990s and died in the early 2000s. So this piece is at least 25 years old. So why is this here? Helen stipulated to Harold that upon his death the work was to be donated to the shul which his family did about, what, three years ago. So, way beyond the grave, Helen Willner is still giving to her shul. I think it is a great story.
One more story from the 90s:
This Story is about Rose Haimowitz. For decades Sisterhood ran a thrift store; first at another location off of Spring Street and then later into the space that is now the main office, Gerry’s office, Tamara’s office and the file room. There is a plaque in her memory but Mrs. Haimowitz deserves a shout out here. The Thrift shop received its inventory in the form of donations so with a staff of volunteers, the revenue equaled profits. The shop brought in $50,000 a year. Mrs. Haimowitz, with other volunteers, brought in over HALF A MILLION dollars in the final 10 years of its existence. The store closed in the 1990s.
I am concluding my presentation here. Anything from the 1990s forward is more ‘current events’ than it is “History”.
I have been attending meetings religiously sometimes as a board member, sometimes as a committee chair for 14 years. Over that time, Sisterhood has donated funds for the new windows in the Religious School and other projects. Recently, the Sisterhood announced it was donating $50,000 to the replacement of the wood doors around the building. Some of them date to 1929!
By my rough count, I believe that Sisterhood has donated another $150,000 over the last 14 years. At some point, I would love some help in collecting the recent donation history of the Sisterhood.
Keep up the good work; it is part of a long tradition of the MJCBY Sisterhood.
I have two conclusions:
What lessons do we take away today?