The Festival of Purim is Wednesday, March 16. Starting Friday, April 15, the eight days of Passover will be observed, and we wish all readers who are celebrating a safe and joyful season. This is a perfect time to learn more about the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish people in Monmouth County, New Jersey and around the world.
Freehold is home to the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, a fascinating place to visit and learn more. Leading us on our tour is the museum’s pleasant and knowledgeable executive director, Jessica Solomon.
Behind the Mounts Corner Shopping Center in Freehold is the historic Levi Solomon Barn, one of the largest barn structures left in Monmouth County. On the second floor of the barn is the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County. Visitors will see its original wooden high-beamed ceiling made of hand-honed cedar shingles, hay hook and water tank. The barn housed hogs (ironic as this was one of the first Jewish farmers in New Jersey) and horses. The barn and colonial house next door were moved to its current locations in the 1990s to make way for the shopping center. On Feb. 19, 2006, the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County was legally incorporated as a New Jersey nonprofit corporation.
“By establishing its home in the old Levi Solomon Barn in Freehold Township, the Jewish Heritage Museum forged another link in a chain that wound back to two earlier Jewish residents of Monmouth County, Jonas Solomon (Levi’s father) and Levy Hart (Levi’s uncle),” Solomon said. “Both men were colonial merchants and tavern keepers, identified as Jews upon being naturalized together in New York on the same day in 1763. Both had married sisters, Catherine and Hannah Applegate, members of a prominent Monmouth County Protestant family. Numerous court records indicate that the brothers-in-law were often business partners. They are in the exhibit to mark the establishment of a Jewish settlement in Monmouth County. Their legacy found buried in the walls of the barn laid baron for decades.”
In May 2003, barn owner Bernard Hochberg attended the lecture given by Jean Klerman, the co-author of “Peddler to Suburbanite: The History of the Jews of Monmouth County, NJ,” on “Jewstown, Monmouth County, 1778” at the 225th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Monmouth. Hochberg proudly showed the audience the early 19th century Levi Solomon account book, which he had just discovered hidden in the barn walls. At that time, neither Hochberg nor Klerman envisioned the barn becoming the home of a Jewish historical museum.
After many months, the township gave the museum its approval, and under the supervision of Michael Berman and Gary Cohen, the old ramshackle barn was converted into a modern multi-media exhibit and performance space featuring theatrical lighting and sound-systems.
The history of the museum goes beyond the walls. In 2015, the museum was honored to have the oral histories of 15 Jewish World War II veterans, which form the collection “Living Voices,” accepted into the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This documentation of the positive and vital role played by Monmouth County’s Jewish soldiers and citizens at a critical time in American history truly fulfills one of the charter objectives of the museum.
As the museum entered its second decade, its centerpiece permanent exhibit, a timeline titled “Three Centuries of Growth and Change: A History of the Jews of Monmouth County,” was installed in May 2017. The museum welcomes tour groups, large and small, from adult facilities, schools, synagogues and community organizations. Atendees will learn the compelling story of how the Jewish developed from one Sephardi Jew peddling his wares in Monmouth County in the early 1700s, into a diverse community of Jews, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, with more than 40 active synagogues and many Jewish institutions.
Solomon become the museum’s first executive director in 2019. She noted, “The museum is a hidden gem that many Jewish people discover when searching for their roots. My goal is to preserve the stories shared to me by preserving the past and present so that future generations can become stewards of our stories and cultural legacies.”
The museum continues to grow. Just before having to closing to the public for a year and a half because of the pandemic, the museum featured an exhibit called “Jews of India: The History and Practices of the Bene Israel, Cochin, and Baghdadi Jews” which explored the complex, fascinating history of the Jews of India by tracing the different origin stories of three groups who settled there as long as 2,000 years ago. The new exhibit opening this month is called “Rabbi Sally J. Priesand: A Fifty-Year Celebration Honoring the Ordination of America’s First Female Rabbi and Her Contributions to Monmouth County.” The exhibit focuses on Priesand’s groundbreaking impact in Monmouth County, through the synagogue and beyond. The exhibition will be in place for much of 2022.
The museum is located at 310 Mounts Corner Dr. in Freehold. It’s open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 3 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm and by appointment. Visit jhmomc.org to learn more.