Going to the wall for lost plaques
As shuls merge or fade, genealogists preserve memorial markers
As an ardent genealogist, Harold Kravis enjoys playing detective.
These days, the Livingston resident and member of Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark is engaged in a major hunt. He is searching for the whereabouts of a memorial plaque honoring his great-grandfather, Morris Kravitz, who came to Newark from Poland in 1903.
The memorial, or yahrtzeit, plaque would have adorned a wall of a long-defunct synagogue called Anshe Warsaw on Bedford Street in Newark.
“I started looking in 2001 and I found his grave at the Anshe Warsaw Cemetery on Grove Street,” Kravis told NJ Jewish News May 8 as he scrolled through pages of research on his laptop computer. “But I am still looking for his memorial plaque.”
Judy Salomon of West Caldwell, vice president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of North Jersey, is concerned that many such plaques have gone missing since Newark’s Jewish population hit its peak around 1948, when there were between 60,000 and 75,000 Jews and 59 synagogues in the city.
As the number of Newark synagogues dwindled — just Congregation Ahavas Shalom is left — with some folding, some merging, and some relocating to the suburbs, many of the plaques were remounted on the walls of their new venues — but not all.
“I think there are many thousands of plaques that are missing,” said Salomon, who has completed an exhaustive project at her synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where she has catalogued more than 1,000 of the synagogue’s plaques and logged them on a database.
“We want to document and index memorial plaques on synagogues because what they have are dates of death and, in many cases, Jewish names,” she said. “It leads people back generations.”
JewishGen, a leading Jewish genealogical website, runs the Memorial Plaques Database, urging synagogues to submit the names and birth and death information inscribed on their plaques. Because Hebrew names traditionally refer to one’s parents (“Morris, son of Yehuda”) they provide helpful clues to those seeking information about past generations.
Oheb Shalom Congregation, which dates back to Newark in 1860, displays hundreds of names in its front lobby and its sanctuary in South Orange. In addition to plaques from its Newark days, it displays several hundred plaques from Congregation Beth Torah of Orange, which it merged with in 1983.
“They represent our peoplehood, our connection to our history, and people feel proud we have been able to sustain them and still be here,” said Linda Griffler, Oheb Shalom’s executive director. “We have made these plaques a priority. We have taken great care to maintain the integrity of their history as we respect and remember our loved ones.”
On display at Congregation Israel in Springfield are hundreds of plaques from now shuttered Newark synagogues, including Congregations Adas Israel Mishnayes, Knesseth Israel, Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, Anshe Israel-Ein Jacob, and Anche Russia.
Leonard Strulowitz, a native of Newark’s Weequahic section, founded Congregation Israel at his home in Springfield before it moved to its current location on Mountain Avenue. He is also a member of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.
“I love the history and some of the names are people I knew,” he told NJJN. “It unifies us with the people who worked so hard to have their shuls survive.
“These plaques keep their names alive.”
Plaques from the now defunct Holche Yosher Ahavas Achim, once the largest Orthodox synagogue in Elizabeth, are on display at the city’s Jewish Educational Center, with which it merged in 1966.
But sometimes the plaques are stashed in someone’s basement and forgotten. Others have been stolen and melted down into scrap metal.
Linda Forgosh, executive director of the JHS on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, said she hopes to have as many preserved as possible.
“It is always interesting to read them when you come into a congregation,” she said. “You never know who you are going to find on the wall. They can be accounts of early founders of the synagogue. They are testimony that ‘We were here and our lives have been involved with synagogue life.’ They are historic documents.
“Their theme is ‘remember me.’ Your name is what represents you. The plaques say, ‘I was here.’”
Harold Kravis has managed to trace his grandparents’ Jewish roots to the congregation of Emeth Israel, which once stood in East Orange. Their yahrtzeit plaques are now displayed at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange.
But the search for his great-grandfather’s plaque goes on.