Recalling the Rise and Fall of Weequahic as a Jewish Neighborhood

by Nat Bodian


The Weequahic section was one of the last Jewish neighborhoods to develop. It gradually emerged from an agricultural area to a neighborhood populated by upwardly mobile Jews who had escaped from the High Street and Prince Street areas1, where they or their parents traded former run-down ancient wood-framed tenements for finely and more recently constructed one to four-family homes with many refinements that had been lacking in their former neighborhoods, such as central heating and private plumbing.

1926: Weequahic's Growing Jewish Presence

Ray Miller, currently living in retirement in Canyon Lake, California, was as eye-witness to Weequahic's evolving environment from largely gentile to essentially an all-Jewish community, beginning in 1926 and through his graduation from Weequahic High in 1940.

Here are some of his recollections of the changing Weequahic neighborhood:

"In 1926, we moved into a one-family house on Vasser Avenue between Elizabeth Avenue and Bergen Street. This was one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Newark.

"From Chancellor to Lyons, the houses in comparable locations were all one-family and generally well-kept. Above Bergen Street to Parkview Terrace, the houses were largely two-family, and beyond that, single-family houses again appeared.

"On our block there was a one-family largely brick home at Bergen Street. Across Vasser Avenue lived the Joseph Reinfeld (Seagram) family in a similar large brick house.

"Next to the Reinfeld family lived the city's Fire Chief, who had an official Fire Department sedan pick him up each morning, and return him to Vasser Avenue each evening.

There was also a plumber who had what may have been the city's first underground watering system. He had the control valves in his basement to handle the system.

There was also a racketeer, a dentist, and several independent businessmen, and an assorted group of about a dozen happy kids."

1940s, a Bustling Jewish Community

By the late 1940s, the Weequahic section had in excess of 30,000 Jewish residents, while the adjacent Clinton Hill section had less that half that number, 13,4000, and southward from Weequahic--just over the Weequahic-Newark city line, another 4,000 Jewish residents in Hillside.

The German Jews of Newark, who had been living mainly in the nearby Clinton Hill section, did not appear to be attracted to Weequahic.

More often than not, when vacating Clinton Hill, they moved to the western suburbs, taking their synagogues with them, among them the historic Newark congregations B'nai Abraham, B'nai Jeshurun, and Oheb Shalom.

While the Weequahic neighborhood retained its large Jewish population through the 1940s and 1950s, there was a slow exodus into the Essex suburbs.

However, those who vacated the Weequahic area and moved into such towns as South Orange and Livingston still returned to shop their favorite clothing shops on Bergen, which were one-by-one following them into the suburbs.

The turning point for Weequahic as a Jewish neighborhood and the Bergen Street Jewish shopping district, as a former merchant recalled for me, was the 1960s riots.

"Then," she recalled, "everyone flew."



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