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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Purchase of ark stirs New Jerseyans’ memories of coal town congregation

by Debra Rubin
NJJN Staff Writer

When the Torah ark from a defunct synagogue in a small Pennsylvania coal mining town was purchased by the Chabad Jewish Center in Monroe, it triggered memories for at least three Middlesex County residents.

The three remembered the ark from their childhoods in Shenandoah, Pa., where it resided for 159 years in the Kehillat Israel Synagogue.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Rabbi Herman Cohen of East Brunswick, who read an article about the purchase of the ark in the July 11 issue of New Jersey Jewish News. Kehillat Israel was the Orthodox shul where his father, Pinchas, served as rabbi, town shohet (ritual slaughterer), mohel, and teacher in the 1930s.

Herman Cohen, who has a Conservative ordination, came to New Jersey in 1982 and served as rabbi at Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge. Later he was the Bergen County Jewish chaplain at the county jail and at Bergen Regional Medical Center for 15 years before retiring.

After Cohen saw the article, he said, “I called my wife at work and told her, and she said she wasn’t going to believe it until she saw it for herself. It really stirred old memories.”

His father, a native of Jerusalem, earned $35 a week for all his services, but was fired and rehired because his salary was too extravagant for the congregation.

“I remember starting school there, and I remember the aron kodesh [holy ark],” said Cohen. “We lived in a small apartment that also had several other things, including the caskets used by the local hevra kadisha [burial society]. My brother and I were afraid to go in that room. I remember almost all the Jews were shopkeepers or peddlers, but when we were there, the town was already in decline.”

Fannie Kuflik, 81, of East Brunswick recalled that her family’s roots were deep in Shenandoah; her grandparents were married there. Her grandfather had come to the town from Russia, as did his five brothers.

“My grandfather had a grocery store there and owned some real estate,” she said. “When I was there, most of the stores on Main Street were owned by Jews.”

She said her own father, who died when she was 12, had a men’s clothing store, but he “lost everything” after the 1929 stock market crash.

Kuflik remembers Kehillat Israel fondly and recalled how the women would go upstairs to sit and the men downstairs, each worshiper always to the same seat.

“When I was there, Shenandoah was in its heyday,” said Kuflik, who left in 1942 after high school to work as a civilian employee of the Signal Corps in Philadelphia and later lived with an aunt and uncle in Utica, NY. “We had dances, a Jewish community center, a kosher meat market, and Hebrew school. It was nice.”

Although there are virtually no Jews left there, she noted that “the friends I had in Shenandoah are still my friends.”

Kuflik lived in Staten Island for many years before coming to East Brunswick 13 years ago to be near her daughter.

“I’m happy about it being here,” she said of the ark. “I’d love to see it. There were times I went back to visit my father’s grave, but I couldn’t get into the shul because it was locked.”

Sanford Aranoff, 68, also grew up in Shenandoah and now lives in the adult community of Clearbrook in Monroe, where he moved from Park Ridge in Bergen County.

“I was bar mitzva’d there,” he reminisced. “At that time there were about 100 Jewish families in town, but there were only two families who were Sabbath observant — our extended family and the rabbi’s. I went to heder there after school. Some uncles and my grandparents are buried there.”

While he was still a teenager, Aranoff and his family left for Miami Beach, where he graduated from high school and the University of Miami. However, other members of his extended family remained in Shenandoah, running the family wholesale bakery and grocery warehouse.

“After my uncle died, somebody bought the building and decided to keep it as a museum, so they did not touch the exterior of the building,” he said. “We went back a couple of years ago and it was very interesting. It still says ‘Aranoff Wholesalers.’”

Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky of the Monroe Chabad acknowledged he was a little taken aback by the local reaction to the ark.

“I was surprised,” he said. “People feel very attached to it, like part of their past was coming alive. Some wanted to take part in the [rededication] ceremony.”

The ark was disassembled on June 25 at Kehillat Israel and transported to Monroe by a group of 10 people from Chabad, which is in a process of an expansion expected to be completed in about five months. Until the ark is reassembled, the congregation is using a makeshift ark.

Zaklikovsky had seen the ark and other synagogue furnishings when he made the almost three-hour trip there over the winter with the hope of buying a Torah scroll. Chabad members may make a second trip to bring back even more items from the historic shul.

Shenandoah, founded in 1860 in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region, is 105 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Its Jewish population — once comprising approximately 100 families — has shrunk to 11 people. Its overall population was 30,000 in 1920, but the town was hard hit by the decline of the anthracite coal industry after World War II, and residents, including Jews, began leaving. The 2000 census put its population at 5,624.

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

Cohen, who has a private practice, works one day a week as a counselor for the Jewish Family & Vocational Service of Middlesex County, also in Monroe. But his and Zaklikovsky’s connection doesn’t stop at Shenandoah and Monroe. After leaving Shenandoah, the Cohen family moved to Winnipeg, Canada, where father and later son served as rabbis. Zaklikovsky’s wife, Chanie, is from Winnipeg, where her father is the Chabad rabbi.

“I feel like there is six degrees of separation between us,” said Cohen. “If there’s any kind of ceremony, I’d like to be part of it.”

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