New home for Torah ark

The Home News Tribune, June 23, 2006

Monroe Township, New Jersey—The Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe will mark an important milestone Sunday with the acquisition of an ark, the sacred structure used to house the Torah. But it's more than a new beginning — it also marks an end.

The ark will come from the 159-year-old Kehillat Israel temple in Shenandoah, Pa., which is no longer in use. The empty synagogue was once the center of a thriving Jewish community in the coal-mining town.

“We had over 100 Jewish families when I was growing up. Now there's barely 11 Jews in Shenandoah,” said Herb Siswein, 80, who said he was an active member of the congregation. His grandfather attended services at Kehillat in 1892, he said.

“It's very heartbreaking,” said Ethel Harris, 79, who was president of the sisterhood there. “It was really a very beautiful old synagogue.”

Her husband, Mendel Harris, 84, was the last president and treasurer of the congregation. He plans to say Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, for the temple.

“It's like the death of a loved individual,” he said.

But the transfer of the ark will also keep a part of Kehillat alive, the Harrises said. “It stood in that temple for decades and it represented God and the Torah in that community, and was part of the celebration of new life, of new marriages, (and) of life-cycle events in that community,” said Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky of the Monroe temple. “And now, instead of that ark being destroyed, it is moving on where it can have new life in a new environment.

”It will be a source of inspiration for anybody who will see it and will come to celebrate life in its new home."

Proceeds from the sale of the ark will also help celebrate the lives of Kehillat congregants who have passed on. The money will go into a trust fund used to pay for the maintenance of Kehillat Israel Cemetery, Mendel Harris said.

Zaklikovsky said the Chabad Jewish Center is still in the process of negotiating the price of the ark.

The rabbi and 10 volunteers will head out Sunday morning for a drive to Shenandoah, Pa., to retrieve the ark. It will be a complex and careful process, he said, because the ark was built into the temple wall in accordance with Jewish tradition.

It will be placed in a new building that is under construction. The building is expected to be completed and dedicated within six months, the rabbi said.

The acquisition of the ark coincides this week with the Yartzeit, or anniversary of death, of Rebbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who was the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Zaklikovsky said. The Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe will honor his memory with the new addition, the rabbi said, and will also mark his 1994 passing by visiting his grave in Queens, N.Y., on Thursday.



New Jersey Jewish News
Greater Middlesex County Feature

A Rust Belt community’s Torah ark gets a new life at a new synagogue

by Debra RubinNJJN Staff Writer


A Torah ark that had held the sacred scrolls for many generations in a small Pennsylvania town where Jews no longer live will find new life in the thriving Monroe Jewish community.

The 159-year-old ark spent its entire life at the Kehillat Israel Synagogue in Shenandoah, which has closed its doors.

On June 25, the ark was disassembled and transported to the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe, which is in the process of an expansion expected to be completed in about six months. It is now using a makeshift ark for its Torah.

How the ark ended up making the three-hour drive to its new home was in itself an unexpected but welcome occurrence.

“We were looking for a Torah,” said Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky. “There are people in the business of selling Torahs from shuls that are closing. I contacted some places in Brooklyn.”

Over the winter, he got a call that the Shenandoah synagogue was looking to sell a Torah. Told to go up on a Sunday, Zaklikovsky was warned that another potential buyer had an appointment right before him. The scroll was indeed purchased by that buyer, but while waiting, the rabbi had a chance to survey his surroundings.

“I was standing in this temple, which was just a magnificent thing,” he recalled. “It was a gorgeous, cozy-type old Orthodox shul. I was talking to some of the old members who were so upset about the closing. Jews had settled there around the 1860s because of the coal-mining industry and it was a very thriving time.”

Zaklikovsky was struck by the “ornate and beautiful” furnishings and ritual items, particularly the ark, and inquired about its future.

“I was told it would all be given away,” he said. “Then this man asked if I was interested in purchasing the furniture, so we looked around. It was like a dream. An opportunity had presented itself.”

So on June 25, Zaklikovsky and a group of 10 from his synagogue set off in a torrential downpour to retrieve the ark, a Torah reading table, and two pews from Kehillat Israel. They brought along Joe McConnell of Helmetta, a carpenter and builder, to dismantle the ark.

McConnell “methodically took apart that ark piece by piece with such a sense of feeling and sensitivity toward its religious significance even though he was not Jewish,” said Al Tyberg, one of those making the trip. “We got there about 11 [a.m.] and finished about 6 [p.m.]. We brought lots of blankets to wrap the pieces before putting them in the truck.”

One of the highlights was getting a tour of the old shul from a previous member who met the Monroe group.

“He took us down to the basement and there was an old mikva,” he said.

His wife, Rose, described the trip as “enjoyable” despite the downpour. “We were going to get something that is very holy to our people that will have a place in our sanctuary and become a part of our community,” she said. “They were so happy to see it go to another place of worship.”

She said she “was in awe” of the old building with its balcony seating for women.

“The women sitting upstairs brought back memories of our oldest son’s bar mitzva at (Congregation) Poile Zedek” in New Brunswick, said Rose Tyberg.

Shenandoah, founded in 1860 in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region, is 105 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It once had approximately 100 Jewish families. Its population was 30,000 in 1920, but the town was hit hard by the decline of the anthracite coal industry after World War II. Residents, including Jews, began leaving. The 2000 census put its population at 5,624.

The sale of the building and ritual items will be put into a trust for the Kehillat Israel Cemetery Association to maintain the graves of past generations.

Nothing more dramatized the end of the Jewish community than Zaklikovsky’s own experience. The person he had met at the synagogue that winter day died by the time he again got back in touch.

“It was sad,” he said. “You could see history slipping away ….”

Zaklikovsky’s thoughts turned to the rain that made the drive home hazardous and threatened to soak their sacred cargo.

“If rain is a blessing, then certainly this carries a blessing because let me tell you it was really raining all the way from Monroe to Shenandoah,” he added. “Maybe the temple was crying because its ark was being removed from it. But it was very gratifying to be able to give new life to this ancient community.”