Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 / Spring-Summer 1998

Paterson (NJ) Sanctuary Threatened:
Art Deco Synagogue Financed by Warner Brothers Executive Recalls Film’s Silent Era
by Mark Gordon

Imagine one of the most beautiful synagogue sanctuaries built in North America with an octagonal design, marble ark and bimah, bronze doors, 21 stained glass windows, a glass skylight, custom light fixtures and intricate Art Deco architectural detailing.  Then imagine a congregation that wishes to dismantle the historic sanctuary piece-by-piece and move it to a new large building in an outer suburb where very few Jews live.  This is the current story of Temple Emanuel in Paterson, New Jersey.

It all started in the late 1920s.  Jacob Fabian of the Warner Brothers movie company donated over $400,000 to Temple Emanuel for construction of a new synagogue in the fashionable Eastside neighborhood of Paterson.  The architect was Frederic Wentworth who used a designer with experience in building the great movie houses of the 1920s.  On September 20, 1929, the Conservative congregation dedicated a magnificent synagogue providing seating for 1,250 people.
Temple Emanuel once had over 1,000 members,  but membership declined -- in part from changing demographics, but also because an ailing rabbi tried to hang on too long.  To bolster its resources, the congregation merged with one in Oakland (nine miles northwest of Paterson).  A plan several years ago by a Jewish Theological Seminary rabbi to add a new use and funding to the synagogue building as a school for learning-challenged children did not come to fruition when it was not supported by the congregation's leadership.

In 1995, Temple Emanuel voted 125 to 83 to move to a new synagogue in Franklin Lakes, with nearby Oakland members providing 70 of the affirmative votes to move.  President Vicki Rosenblith, who lives in Upper Saddle River, spearheaded the vote to leave Paterson.

The congregation's current plan is to construct a building in Franklin Lakes tall enough to hold the ark, fixtures and stained glass windows from the Paterson sanctuary.  Some uncertainties remain concerning the planned move.  Opposition exists in Franklin Lakes to erecting such a large building.  In addition,  the capital budget for the new building has grown to over $8 million, quite a sum for congregation now hovering at 300 membership units with many of them single and some likely to resign when the synagogue moves away.

What are the options?  If the move goes through, the Paterson synagogue could be used as another house of worship, but only if the large windows are replaced after taking out the stained glass ones.  The congregation recently received an offer to purchase its building by an industrial company which would almost certainly demolish or significantly alter the building.

Jerry Nathans, President of The Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey and a long-time congregant, sums up the situation this way: "Temple Emanuel is not an inner city temple.  We are on the edge of Paterson in a very nice neighborhood and easily accessible...We have everything and more, that any congregation would want, especially a most magnificent sanctuary...The destruction of this building would be a sad day for everyone. . .Only after it is destroyed will they realize what has been lost."—MG

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