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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,

New Beginnings."

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

we assembled."

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

Street storefront.

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

spiritual needs."

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

holy days.

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


an oxymoron.

— Elaine Strauss

Old Traditions, New Beginnings , Jewish Center of


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.

Historical Society of Princeton , Bainbridge House, 158

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..

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