Joel Glassman was driving through Plainfield in May en route to his home in Clark when he happened to notice a former synagogue on West Seventh Street that was being renovated. It was in the process of being converted into the Cresthaven Academy, a non-sectarian charter school.
Glassman was determined to preserve the sign above its front door which read “United Orthodox Synagogue.” (Its full name at one time was United Orthodox Tomchei Tmimim.) But getting ahold of it was no simple task.
“People were going around with gas masks, because they were taking all the asbestos out of the place, and I couldn’t go inside,” he told NJJN.
After receiving the building owner’s permission, Glassman retrieved a ladder and hired a helper, and together they removed the sign from above the front door. He donated it in mid-July to the Jewish Historical Society (JHS) of New Jersey. In addition, he gave the society 15 mezuzot and a hand-carved representation of a rabbi blowing a shofar — all of which he salvaged from the former Plainfield synagogue.
“The whole crux of my effort was to help the JHS,” Glassman said.
The synagogue, founded in the early 1870s, had been kept alive for part of the past decade by importing yeshiva students from New York City who volunteered to spend their weekends in the Union County town to ensure that there would be a minyan on Shabbat. Seemingly all its members have left the community, leaving behind no information about when the synagogue’s doors closed for good.
Joining Glassman and JHS executive director Linda Forgosh at the society’s office in Whippany was Sarah Segal, manager of Synagogue Initiatives at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. As the liaison between the federation and synagogues in the community, she had been aware of the intended demolition of United Synagogue. Although she was not connected with Glassman’s enterprise, Segal was instrumental in obtaining other relics from the United Orthodox Synagogue.
“We attempted to find former members of this community, or their descendants, and none were located,” she said. “But we did play a part in saving the ner tamid, the eternal light. Most of the prayer books we discovered were covered in hazardous materials. But, there were a few that could be handled safely. We collected those, and we delivered them to B’nai Abraham Cemetery, where they were appropriately buried.”
Although Glassman had no connection to the Plainfield congregation, salvaging its sign was related to his personal mission to collect synagogue artifacts that were relevant to his family and turn them over to the historical society. Three years earlier, he started a search for a memorial plaque for his grandfather, Isadore W. Feldman, an immigrant from Russia who died in 1959.
Feldman, a kosher butcher who lived on Runyon Street in Newark, belonged to Young Israel of Newark, an Orthodox shul on Weequahic Avenue. Glassman began to wonder whether the building housed a memorial plaque inside bearing his grandfather’s name. But when he went to check, he discovered that Young Israel had become a day care center before the building was closed permanently. That didn’t stop Glassman.
“I went into the place and knocked on the door, but I couldn’t get in,” he said. A police officer nearby suggested he knock on a basement door to find its caretaker. Sure enough, a man opened the door, and Glassman told him he was looking for the plaque. But the building had been gutted.
“It was just like a junkyard, no plaques,” he said. “It looked like it had been hit by a bomb.”
Checking to see if perhaps the memorial plaques had been moved to another synagogue, Glassman called “every shul around that I can think of — Springfield, South Orange, maybe they have the plaques there. They said to me ‘No sir, we don’t have any plaques here at all from other shuls.’”
Then he reached out to JHS executive director Linda Forgosh, who referred him to Harold Kravis, a Livingston resident whom she affectionately calls “the plaque hunter.” Kravis has devoted endless years to locating memorial plaques from synagogues that are no longer in existence.
Kravis revealed that it and many other plaques from Young Israel of Newark were being stored at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. Forgosh said she “negotiated” with the head of school, Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, who located Feldman’s memorial plaque and gave it to Glassman.
Today, the plaque adorns a wall at Temple Shalom in Bridgewater, which Glassman and his family attend.
Pursuing his hunt for the plaques of other family members, Glassman visited Zichron Leyma, an Orthodox synagogue in Union that is now a yeshiva.
Inside, he located one for an uncle, Seymour Feldman, who died at the age of 40. Glassman turned the plaque over to Feldman’s son, Paul.
“He was quite excited to receive it,” Glassman said. Today it hangs next to the memorial plaque for Paul’s mother, Sylvia, at the Feldman family’s synagogue in Maryland.
Glassman is no longer searching for memorial plaques. But he is anxious to maintain a sense of family history for his five granddaughters, who range in age from 15 to 21.
All of them became bat mitzvah at Temple Shalom, and read from a Torah he purchased 40 years ago and donated to the Bridgewater congregation.
To him, his gifts are acts to establish a continuity of Jewish tradition for generations to come.
“Our family is extremely close. I marvel at the closeness of my family,” he said.