Saturday, September 15, 2007

Teamwork leads to recovery of holy Jewish cabinet

Saturday, September 15, 2007
The Press-Enterprise

The timing was perfect: Smooth sailing for Rabbi Shmuel Fuss' ark.

It isn't a vessel like Noah's, but a holy cabinet specially constructed to hold an ancient handwritten scroll called the Torah.
The ark arrived last Wednesday and was consecrated at the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Riverside for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
What makes the ark especially poignant for Fuss, 27, is the convergence of several faiths behind the rescue and resurrection of this sacred box.
A Muslim discovered it in an antiques store in Yucca Valley. Her Jewish friends bought and transported the ark to Riverside. Their Jewish friends knew that Fuss' congregation needed an ark. They asked their Mormon neighbors if their son was looking for a service project. He was. And so, that's how the mysterious ark came to be restored.
"What I find so beautiful is that we're from the same God, the same universe," Fuss said. "We all came together with total respect."
Jon Taleb, 60, the daughter of a Kurdish father and Irish mother, stumbled upon the ark while searching for a chest of drawers. An elementary school teacher in Perris, she stopped at a vintage shop one day on her way home to Joshua Tree.
The ark had languished at the second-hand furniture store for at least three decades. The owner thought it had come from a church. But Taleb knew better.
Although Muslim, she'd visited synagogues for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
She recognized the Hebrew letters on the massive structure. It stood nearly 5 foot tall from the top of its peaked roof to the bottom of the box, which was almost as wide. It was 30 inches deep with two folding doors in front.
Taleb could see in the veneer the imprint of a metal Star of David that had been removed. "I felt some kind of reverence," Taleb said. "It had meant something to someone."
She described the ark in detail to her friends, Margie and Kevin Akin, members of Temple Beth El in Riverside. Their synagogue has a fine ark.
Margie Akin consulted her mahjong partner, Inez Trupp. She and husband Chet Trupp have attended Chabad services in the new community center. They asked Fuss.
He was eager to jettison Chabad's makeshift ark for the one abandoned at the antiques store.
"What better time to inaugurate it than the Jewish holidays?" he said.
Margie Akin gave Jon Taleb $80 to buy the ark. Taleb hauled it home. On Aug. 19, Kevin Akin drove the ark to Riverside where he scrutinized the box that was huge enough to hold four Torahs.
He surmised that the ark was at least a half-century old and was once housed in a now-defunct desert synagogue. The ark probably disappeared after its retiree population died out. Or perhaps an another congregation discarded the ark after renovating or moving to a new building.
"This piece is so heavy and bulky it probably never traveled very far," Kevin Akin said.

16-Year-Old's Project

Next stop was the home of Mark and Darlene Malone. Friends of the Trupps, they agreed to take on the transformation of the ark. It was intended as a Boy Scout and a Mormon church project for their 16-year-old son, Andrew, a junior at Riverside's King High School.
Andrew has Jewish friends and attended a bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony when a Jewish girl turns 13.
"I wanted to do something to help the Jewish community," he said.
Because of Andrew's heavy football schedule and the tight two-week deadline to rehabilitate the ark, dad stepped in to do most of the work.
"Whoever made the ark was absolutely a carpenter," marveled Mark Malone, himself an expert craftsmen.
Father and son built a 3-foot cabinet for the holy box to sit on, making it a seamless unit. They sanded and restained the ark, repaired damages, painted with gold inlay the Hebrew letters carved into the Ten Commandments at the top of the ark and replaced $400 worth of hardware.
Fuss said he plans to reimburse Malone, a small price for the donated ark the rabbi estimates would cost about $5,000.
Fuss placed the ark at the easternmost wall of the community center. That's because worshippers chant prayers while facing the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which is east in most Jewish-populated countries.
"This is really a wonderful new beginning," he said.

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