Corrections or additions?
Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 31, 2000. All rights
Princeton’s Jewish Trad
For several years the Historical Society of Princeton
has been celebrating Princeton’s history, and recognizing its past
by focusing on the municipality’s ethnic communities. An exhibit that
opened in 1993 featured the Italian American community; in 1996 it
was the African-American community. On Sunday, June 4, the Historical
Society of Princeton joins forces with the Jewish Center to open a
show devoted to the Jewish community in Princeton. Celebrating
250 years of Princeton Jewish history and the 50th anniversary of
the Jewish Center, the exhibition takes place at Bainbridge House,
home of the Historical Society at 158 Nassau Street; and at the Jewish
Center at 435 Nassau Street. Its overall title is "Old Traditions,
Linda Grenis and Ricky Shechtel are co-chairs, heading a 19-person
advisory board. Historical Society director Gail Stern is project
director, and curator Maureen Smyth is project coordinator. Alice
Greenwald, a former director of the National Museum of American Jewish
History in Philadelphia, is guest curator for the Historical Society
component. Curators for the Jewish Center component are Yvonne Skaggs,
an independent curator, and Jill Vexler, an anthropologist in New
The show germinated about two years ago when the JC was making plans
for its 50th anniversary. Grenis, a JC board member wrote and
the proposal that the Historical Society recognized as being
timely for the turn of the century. Interviewed by telephone Grenis,
who calls the exhibition "a labor of love," says, "It’s
unusual for two institutions to work so closely." She remembers
encountering skepticism at first. "People thought it was a
she says, "When I told friends that I was working on a show about
Jews in Princeton they would laugh and say, "Yeah, all 20 of them.
But we got such a huge response, we’re using only a third of what
Alice Greenwald, guest curator for the Historical Society portion
of the show, confirms Grenis’ experience. "I went into the project
thinking it would be very slim," she says in a telephone
"’Jewish Princeton’ is a kind of oxymoron. But we discovered,
much to our delight and surprise, that there is a great deal to
"Like every exhibition," says Greenwald, "when you begin
to delve in, you get very deep into the subject for a short time.
Here, there was not a great deal written. When the history is not
documented creating the exhibition is also creating the history. In
this respect, it’s not dissimilar to Holocaust Museum Work. We’re
writing the history." A freelancer, Greenwald counts among her
clients the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for which she
has curated five exhibitions.
Born in Cedarhurst, Long Island, Greenwald, 48, found the museum world
irresistible when she took a summer job at a small Jewish museum while
doing graduate work in the History of Religions at the Divinity School
of the University of Chicago. "I was astonished at how much fun
I was having," she says. I liked packaging material visually,
and packaging it for an audience larger than academia. I liked the
environment of a museum, learning in a space, rather than sitting
home reading. Academia was stifling for me."
"Princeton was a Presbyterian community for a very long time,"
Greenwald says. "In the colonial period the Jewish presence was
very limited. Jews had business dealings or passed through as
Not till the 20th century was there a Princeton Jewish community.
Until then it’s idiosyncratic stories."
The earliest document indicating a Jewish presence in Princeton dates
from the 1730s and mentions Judah Mears, a merchant. "He was a
colorful and litigious person," says Greenwald. Also
says Greenwald, was Sarah Marks of New Orleans, who married John
Stockton, scion of the family that settled in Princeton, lived in
Morven, and included a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Sarah and John met at school in Philadelphia and married when she
was 17 and he was 20. Sarah became an Episcopalian. Her diary, which
is included in the Historical Society segment of the show, reveals
her as unhappy and feeling excluded.
At the university Jews were a rarity until well into the 20th century.
Restrictive admissions policies limited the number of Jewish students.
The first was probably Albert H. Mordecai from Baltimore, class of
1863. The first Jewish tenured professor at the university was Solomon
Lefschetz, a Russian mathematician, who started teaching there in
By the beginning of the 20th century a Jewish immigrant community
began to develop in Princeton. It consisted mostly of small time
merchants, butchers, and shopkeepers. The families tended to live
in apartments above the stores until well into the 1930s.
In 1926, led by local jeweler Isadore Braveman, 25 families joined
to form Princeton’s first synagogue, B’nai Zion. Services were held
in the Branch Building on Witherspoon Street, and later in a Spring
By the 1930s Jews were a high-profile component in
secular activities. The Institute for Advanced Study was founded in
1930 by the Bamberger and Fuld families, Jewish philanthropists of
Newark and Philadelphia. Later in the decade the Institute was a haven
for refugees from Nazi Germany. Many of them were non-observant,
they supported Jewish causes.
Albert Einstein is probably the best known of the group. An atheist,
he was, nevertheless, a Zionist. A legendary fund raiser for the
Jewish Appeal (UJA), Einstein hit on the ingenious idea of going to
parlor meetings, where he would allow contributors to write checks
made out to his name. Einstein would then endorse the checks to UJA.
After the check was cashed and returned it to the account holder,
the contributor would become the recipient of an Einstein autograph.
Art historian Erwin Panofsky, also a refugee, and an Einstein
at the Institute, was also active in Jewish causes though he was
unobservant. Curator Greenwald quotes his widow as saying that the
only time Panofsky was ever in synagogue was for his funeral.
adds, "He was Jewish in his identity, but not in terms of his
The exhibit touches on anti-Semitism. "It’s a touchy subject,"
says Greenwald. "Anecdotally, there’s tons of information, stories
of feeling snubbed or excluded." Hard documentary evidence,
also turns up. A property deed dated 1937 on display at the Historical
Society specifically forbade the sale of houses to those "of
or Hittite extraction, or members of the Hebrew faith." (The term
"Hittite" refers to people of Near Eastern origin.) It also
excluded those of "Negroid extraction or African decent
Greenwald finds the exclusions "all part of the scene in the
and, in context, no more remarkable than the prohibitions against
chicken coops, water closets or pigpens several covenants earlier.
At any rate, the Jewish community began to grow. By
the 1940s there was an influx of young Jewish college graduates
in science and education who had the skills needed for Princeton’s
developing pharmaceutical industry, for RCA, and for ETS. "They
were hiring qualified people who happened to be Jewish and it changed
the demography of the community," says Greenwald. "There were
young families with young children who didn’t want to schlep to
for services. They wanted a center not only for services, but also
to provide intellectual challenges, initiate social action, and
a Sunday school."
In 1950 25 families founded the Jewish Center. It has now grown to
720 families, according to co-chairman Grenis. Most of its current
members are from Princeton, but it also draws from surrounding towns
and includes families from New York City and Pennsylvania.
By 1950, according to Rabbi Dov Elkins, spiritual leader of the Jewish
Center, B’nai Zion, the orthodox synagogue, had shrunk in size.
were tiny," he says "and they folded. They gave us their
and we absorbed them."
The Princeton Jewish Center is a novel institution. Unlike most Jewish
places of worship it caters to more than one variety of Judaism.
explains: "When the Jewish Center was founded in 1950 there was
a small number of Jews. There weren’t enough to create various
and people wanted a center for everybody. The more families there
are, the stronger the program is, and the further the budget
"There are four divisions to Judaism," says Elkins, who was
trained as a Conservative rabbi at New York’s Jewish Theological
"but really the division is in two, modern and traditional. We
have all three progressive branches of Judaism [conservative, reformed
and reconstructionist]. The diversity gives openness and inclusivity.
The liturgy, services, and other matters of Jewish law are basically
conservative. We’re not orthodox, but we accommodate everybody
To appeal to its diverse membership the Center offers two simultaneous
services, varying in their modernity, on the sabbath and for the high
Elkins explains why orthodox Jews would not feel at home at the Jewish
Center. "We believe that men and women are totally equal,"
he says. "Women are a full and integral part of the center. We
have just engaged a woman rabbi. The orthodox wouldn’t accept our
egalitarian approach, our abbreviated torah reading, or our seating
of men and women together. Also we have about 50 intermarried families
where the parents are trying to raise their children as Jews."
The growth of a Jewish community is a significant feature of 20th
century Princeton. A look at the show "Old Traditions, New
in its two locations — the Historical Society and the Jewish
— will clarify why the term "Jewish Princeton" is no
— Elaine Strauss
435 Nassau Street, 609-921-6748. Opening reception for the major
celebrating 50 years of the Jewish Center, jointly presented by the
Historical Society of Princeton at the Bainbridge House. A free
will shuttle guests between the two opening receptions. Open to the
public Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to
3 p.m. Sunday, June 4, 4 to 7 p.m.
Nassau Street, 609-921-6748. Members’ preview opening for the
celebrating 250 years of Princeton Jewish history. A free shuttle
will carry guests between the two opening receptions. Sunday, June
4, 5 to 7 p.m..
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.