It isn’t often that you get to save a piece of Jewish history, but that is exactly what Peter Kohn feels he has done.
The Mountainside resident, a construction supervisor working for two companies in Manhattan, recently stumbled across two marble tablets while inspecting the basement of an Upper West Side building.
They were inscribed with what he believed to be Hebrew.
“I was surprised to see these two tablets in this old building that looked to be from a temple or some Jewish institution just sitting against a concrete wall in the basement,” Kohn told NJJN.
Kohn, a member of Temple Sharey Tefilo–Israel in South Orange for 25 years, couldn’t translate the words, but took out his cell phone and snapped photos of the tablets.
Later, when returning to another assignment at NYU Langone Medical Center, he asked an observant Jew he happened to see in the lobby if he could translate what was written. He learned that though the letters were Hebrew, the writing was Yiddish.
Kohn also learned one tablet was from the Proskurover Zion Congregation, which he later discovered was founded in 1900 in the East Village by immigrants from Proskurov, in western Ukraine. The synagogue had long since ceased to exist. The other was from the Proskurover Center Ladies Auxiliary.
He said he was told the tablets were primarily lists of names of members and donors to the shul and its women’s auxiliary.
The synagogue was one of many founded by immigrants from the one-time Pale of Settlement in the early 20th century. Proskurov was the site of a 1919 pogrom during which 775 people, including 76 children, were killed.
The tablets dropped off Kohn’s radar for a few weeks, until the superintendents of the construction project called to ask if he was still interested in doing something with them. Kohn started making calls to find out how the tablets ended up in an uptown basement far from their original home. The synagogue’s original building is now a four-story apartment building with an engraved inscription in English and Yiddish above its front door.
Although Kohn could find no one representing the defunct congregation or the descendants of the Proskurover Jews, he recognized the tablets’ historical value and was determined to find a permanent home for them.
“At that point I started to search again for a home for the stone tablets and found the West Side Jewish Center, which gave me the name of Rabbi Michael Strassfeld of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism,” said Kohn. Strassfeld, who retired last June as religious leader of the Reconstructionist SAJ, collects English, Hebrew, and Yiddish artifacts from defunct Jewish institutions in the Northeast.
“Rabbi Strassfeld was interested, and I made arrangements with the project manager and the superintendents for the tablets to be relocated to the first floor and for the rabbi to collect the tablets.”
Strassfeld told the Jewish Week that he has kept about 500 artifacts at his Manhattan home and at a storage facility in upstate New York, where he moved one of the tablets. A friend and fellow Judaica collector took the other.
Strassfeld speculated that, since the Upper West Side building once served as a storage facility, the tablets were moved there some time after the synagogue closed and were forgotten over the years.
Kohn said he felt a personal sense of satisfaction with the end result.
“It’s a piece of New York history that I felt fortunate to be able to save,” he said. “I really wanted them to have a home and not be destroyed.
“It wasn’t like finding a Torah, but it was like finding a piece of history. I really felt I was doing a mitzva.”