The B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue, later home to the Hopewell Baptist Church, is one of Newark’s grandest worship spaces and an important part of the city’s past but the future of the building is unclear.
B’nai Jeshurun, which means “Children of the Upright”, was originally founded in 1848 by 13 German Jewish immigrants in the attic of a private home. They quickly outgrew the attic and rented space at different locations; when they incorporated in 1848, they were the first synagogue in Newark. After a decade they were able to purchase their own site on Washington Street, and in 1858 the synagogue was dedicated. The Jewish population of Newark was increasing rapidly, and a much larger synagogue was built for the congregation in 1868.
According to the 1910 census, about 20 percent of the city’s population were Jewish, and B’nai Jeshurun was one of the largest synagogues in the United States. In 1915 B’nai Jeshurun moved to yet another location at 783 High Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd.); this is the location featured in this gallery. This new site had an auditorium with the capacity to seat 1,600 and an attached school building with classrooms that could accommodate 360 students, a library, and a smaller auditorium that could seat a further 380 people. The acoustic tiles in the sanctuary allowed a “speaker using a normal tone of voice [to] be distinctly heard in any part of the auditorium and without any trace of an echo or reverberation.”
By the 1960s, much of the city’s Jewish population was leaving for the suburbs and the High Street synagogue was only used for High Holidays. Plans to move the synagogue to Short Hills were made, and the riots in 1967 lent them urgency. In 1968 the move to the suburbs was finalized, and the High Street synagogue was taken over by a Black congregation, the Hopewell Baptist Church.
While less information is readily available on Hopewell Baptist, it does have a similar history to B’nai Jeshurun in that its congregation moved between storefronts and attic meeting spaces and, as Newark’s Black population grew, so too did the membership of Hopewell. It became one of Newark’s largest Black churches and was active in the Civil Rights movement – the minister was the president of Newark’s NAACP chapter. Hopewell maintained a friendly relationship with the B’nai Jeshurun congregation that was remarkably kind and welcoming, inviting B’nai Jeshurun members back for several services they hosted including Holocaust Remembrance Day. A Facebook image search reveals an active membership who served the community with fundraisers and food drives for the needy. The church went bankrupt in 2017; though I’ve reached out to former church staff to ask if they’d be willing to talk about what Hopewell meant to the community and what led to its closure, I’ve yet to hear back but will update if I do.
The building was purchased in 2019 with plans for restoration and redevelopment. I was able to visit just before work clearing pews out the sanctuary began, and the owner was enthusiastic about its future and his plans to maintain the integrity of the building itself. There are no follow up news items though, and its hard to tell how Covid may have impacted plans.