Rekindling an old flame
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
When a synagogue closes its doors, the ner tamid, eternal flame, that hangs over the ark where the Torah is kept, is often permanently extinguished. But a broken ner tamid, rescued last year from United Orthodox Tomchei Tmimim Synagogue in Plainfield, has been repaired and rekindled in a new home, the second-floor entryway of offices for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ in Whippany.
A small ceremony on June 20 marked its return to light, though now it has a new purpose: to honor donors to the annual unrestricted United Jewish Appeal campaign, which raises funds that are not specifically earmarked and can be used for any purpose.
The discovery and rescue of the red glass ner tamid with metal design work involved a commuter, a synagogue president, a donation, and a phone call. Also playing an important role were Hazmat suits.
The commuter, Joel Glassman of Cranford, had driven by the former synagogue as the building was being prepared for demolition and noticed the “United Orthodox Synagogue” sign hanging above the door. He retrieved the sign and called Linda Forgosh of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey (JHS) to inquire about donating it and some other items from the building to JHS.
Forgosh alerted Sarah Segal, manager of synagogue initiatives for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, who in turn called in Robert Lichtman, a long-time staff member and now federation’s chief Jewish learning officer. Together Segal, Forgosh, and Lichtman were able to salvage mezuzot, prayer books (which received a proper burial), and the ner tamid, with the help of Ed DeCrescenzo, federation’s director of community facilities, and Kenneth Coates, campus superintendent, to retrieve the items. It was Coates and DeCrescenzo who donned the aforementioned suits, necessary because of asbestos contamination in the building.
United Orthodox Tomchei Tmimim Synagogue was founded in the early 1870s and located on West Seventh Street. It struggled to retain members into the 21st century, and with just 10 dues-paying members in 2007, its president, Richard Marks, was pleading with the larger community for financial assistance. (That year his appeal appeared in an NJJN article about the struggling synagogue.)
A few years later United Orthodox Synagogue closed its doors and fell into disrepair, and in 2017 Cresthaven Academy, a charter school that took over the space, began renovations.
At the ceremony on the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus, Lichtman, who orchestrated the installment of the ner tamid, said, “Those of us here right now will be privileged to say to anyone who marvels at the achievements of our Greater MetroWest community months or years from now that we were the ones who tended to this community.
“This light, like our annual unrestricted UJA campaign, will never go out. Not because it can’t go out, but because we will not let it go out.”
And with that, Rebecca Pollack, vice president for the United Jewish Appeal campaign, flipped the switch that rekindled the flame.