The YM-YWHA Movement in Newark From 1877 Birth to End in 1969

by Nat Bodian


In 2003, the 82nd year of my life, in one way or another, I have been associated with a YM-YWHA facility for most of these years, and for more than a third of them in the City of Newark.

The 'Y' movement in Newark, now just a memory, had an eventful history that spanned nearly a century. It came to a lamentable end shortly after the 1967 riots with the exodus of nearly all of the remaining Jewish population in Newark's Weequahic Section to the suburbs.

Newark's remaining YM-YWHA facility at 255 Chancellor Avenue was closed in 19691 and sold to the Newark Board of Education and became Chancellor Avenue Annex.

My Entry Into Y Movement

I came into the Y movement as a youngster of about eight or nine when I wandered into the magnificent new 'Y' building at 652 High Street around 1930. It was just around the corner from the Third Ward cold-water flat where I lived with my family on Montgomery Street

As the Jewish population in the Third Ward neighborhood adjacent to High Street 'Y' shifted over the next two decades to the Clinton Hill or Weequahic neighborhoods, or to the suburbs, the High Street 'Y' facility was closed with the sale of the building to a black Masonic society in 1954.

Starting a 'Y' in Hillside

With no 'Y' building operating in Newark, I was then part of a group instrumental in helping to start a small branch YMHA in a duplex former residential building on Hillside Avenue in Hillside, just 2,500 feet from the Newark Line.

Later, I was on the planning board for a new Newark 'Y' building, subsequently opened at 255 Chancellor Avenue, corner of Aldine Street in Newark--then the center of Newark's Jewish population.

Chancellor 'Y' Building

I was still a board member when the Chancellor 'Y' opened in 1959, and remained an active member throughout its life. It had been built at a cost of $1 million. I had voted in favor of having the Hillside 'Y' building sold to provide some of the funding for the new Chancellor building.

Long-Term Vision for Building

The planners had told us at 'Y' planning meetings that they would limit expenditures to $1 million for the proposed Chancellor building because they anticipated that, with the normal population flow, the concentration of Jewish population currently around the proposed Chancellor 'Y' building would shift westward, and that the Weequahic neighborhood would not have a sufficient Jewish population in 30 years to continue to support that building location.2

Concurrently, I was told, planning was underway for a much more substantial 'Y' facility, at an estimated cost of $4 million, to be built on Northfield Road in West Orange -- the major direction in which the planners anticipated that the Essex County Jewish population would flow over the next three decades.

Their forecasts proved true sooner than they had ever imagined. When the Chancellor 'Y' closed its doors in 1969, the building's operations were moved to the Northfield 'Y' building, which had broken ground in 1966 and was now an operating facility.

After the 1967 riots, Jewish population movement out of Newark's Weequahic Section to the suburbs cut the 30-year life expectancy of the Chancellor 'Y' by about two thirds, and marked the death knell of the 'Y' movement in Newark that was started in December 1877.3

1877 Birth of Newark 'Y' Movement

The birth of the 'Y' movement in Newark took place in 1877 in the vestry rooms of the Temple B'nai Jeshurun, New Jersey's oldest congregation. Franklin Marx was its chosen president.

It was patterned after the YMCA of those days.

For the first three years of its life, the 'Y' was based in Library Hall on Market Street near Broad in a premise that later became a Woolworth 5 and 10 cent store. By 1896, it began losing membership to a new Newark Jewish club called the Progress Club, and shut its doors in 1898.

Numerous attempts to revive the closed Newark 'Y' failed until shortly after the end of World War I. On November 19, 1919, a group of young men--mostly World War I veterans--initiated a 'Y' revival program and succeeded in lining up 2,000 members.

Planning for First 'Y' Building

They had the support of Louis Bamberger and Felix Fuld, prosperous Newark merchants and philanthropists, and launched a building drive in 1922 that led to the ultimate erection and opening of the magnificent 654 High Street building in 1924.

With its growing membership and great interest in a new 'Y', the group ran a minstrel show on February 17, 1920 in the Broad Street Theatre.

In September 1920, the meeting hall at the Talmud Torah on Morton Street proved inadequate for the YMHA, and it was moved to the vestry rooms of the Temple Oheb Shalom at 572 High Street, courtesy of the Temple's rabbi, Charles I. Hoffman.

The 'Y' remained in those premises until 1924 when it moved next door to the newly-constructed 'Y' building at 652 High Street.

Fund Raising for the High Street Building

The fund raising campaign for the proposed High Street building was kicked off on May 5, 1920 with a dance at the Newark Armory that was attended by 6,000 persons. But the official date of the building campaign was May 10, 1920, and on that date the 'Y' boasted a membership of 1,500. This was considerable in a city which at that time had a Jewish population of 24,000.

The bulk of the $500,000 anticipated for the building was raised in a few days with a start by Louis Bamberger of $25,000 and by 1922, ground was broken for the start of the High Street site, which ultimately cost $750,000 ($7.73 million in today's dollars).

By 1928, four years after the formal opening of the High Street 'Y', membership had soared to 4,500 and the High Street facility was the second largest YM-YWHA in the United States.

High Street 'Y' Dedication

The dedication of the High Street 'Y' took place on Sunday, May 18, 1924. Rabbi Hoffman delivered the opening prayer. Newark Mayor Frederick C. Breidenbach greeting the people on behalf of the City of Newark. New Jersey Governor George S. Silzer also addressed the audience.

Growth of the 'Y' on High Street

In the 30 years that followed the building's dedication, the High Street 'Y' building would be the major center for Jewish social and cultural life in Newark.

That 'Y' had everything: Dramatic clubs, literary club, theatre, lectures, a staffed library, extensive sports facilities, game rooms, and a place where the neighborhood's immigrant population, living in ramshackle tenements, and their growing children could feel welcome, despite -- for many -- struggling and unhappy lives in grinding poverty.

In the 'Y' building, they could socialize with one another and enjoy some of the nicer things that life had to offer, and to set their sights for a brighter future.

Untold marriages resulted from meetings at the weekly dances and other social events at the 'Y', and numerous 'Y' alumni went on to positions of leadership in retail merchandising, business, government, and industry... and in such professions as accounting, law, education, medicine, and the theatre.


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