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Poile Zedek buries damaged holy books
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Poile Zedek buries damaged holy books

Prayers are recited as the holy items are buried at the Poile Zedek Cemetery.    
Prayers are recited as the holy items are buried at the Poile Zedek Cemetery.    

month after a fire ravaged the historic Congregation Poile Zedek in New Brunswick, about 300 congregants, community members, and supporters took part in a solemn ceremony to bury damaged Torah scrolls, ritual items, and almost 1,000 holy books, some dating back to the 19th century. 

At a ceremony held Nov. 22 in front of the gutted shul, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995, officials and religious leaders offered prayers and words of encouragement. 

The crowd was then led by members of Misaskim, a Brooklyn-based volunteer organization, who took the destroyed items to be buried at Poile Zedek’s cemetery on Joyce Kilmer Avenue. 

“It was a tremendous showing,” said executive director Robert Dorfman. “We had a wonderful showing of people from Brooklyn. I was truly touched by all the rabbonim who personally recited tehillim [psalms]. It was such a loving demonstration by the entire community.”

Speaking to those assembled on Neilson Avenue across from the shul, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill said the synagogue was one of the reasons the city was so special. He said the fire “cannot break down the faith and the dedication of people willing to preserve.”

Because many of the congregation’s 100 families are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Dorfman said, its vast library included several different versions of Russian-Hebrew prayer books, as well as megillot, volumes of Talmud, and other religious texts, including some books dating back to 19th-century Vilna. 

Under Jewish law, damaged holy books may not be discarded, but must be buried in a cemetery or stored in a dedicated space, known as a geniza.

Also lost in the Oct. 23 blaze were prayer shawls, tefillin, and nine Torah scrolls. Surviving the fire was one scroll, saved by Rabbi Abraham Mykoff, who ran into the burning synagogue. 

Since the fire, congregants have held Shabbat services at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park and a daily minyan at Rutgers Chabad.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office is continuing its investigation into the cause of the fire, although investigators believe it was accidental. 

The synagogue, which had been dropped by its insurance company some months ago, has vowed to rebuild, “with the help of the Almighty and the assistance of the Jewish community,” said Mykoff, “and bring it to greater levels of holiness.”

Dorfman said the rebuilding will take “millions and millions” of dollars. An on-line gofundme account has raised $15,303 as of Nov. 24. 

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