With its high ceilings, colorful stained-glass windows, elegant lamps gracing the bima, and striking art deco chandelier, the sanctuary at Congregation Poile Zedek in New Brunswick stands as a supreme example of opulent houses of worship of the past.
However, the sanctuary at the Orthodox synagogue, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was a bit worse for the wear, having served for many decades as the site of innumerable services, b’nei mitzva, and celebrations.
Then, someone came to the rescue. Dora Shopowich — who found a spiritual home at the shul when she and her late husband, Harry, came to New Brunswick after surviving the Holocaust — has made what synagogue leaders termed a “significant” contribution to the sanctuary’s refurbishment.
In recognition of the establishment of the Harry and Dora Shopowich Fund for the Preservation and Restoration of Congregation Poile Zedek, the newly spruced-up sanctuary was renamed in honor of the couple in a ceremony held June 10. The couple’s children and grandchildren were among the 50-plus people in attendance.
Guests marveled at the renovations made to the roof and ceiling, the interior freshly painted in its original colors, and the refurbished chandelier.
The fund also provided repairs to the heating and electrical systems; air-conditioning will be installed this summer.
The 111-year-old congregation, which once served the city’s large immigrant population, built the Neilson Street building in 1923. While the city’s other Orthodox synagogues followed their migrating congregants to neighboring Highland Park, Poile Zedek stayed in New Brunswick, attracting nearby Russian immigrants and Rutgers students. Many members of the 100-family congregation make the walk from Highland Park across the Albany Street Bridge spanning the Raritan River.
The synagogue was placed on the national register in 1995.
‘A role model’
Speaking to NJJN after the ceremony, the 88-year-old Shopowich said she made the donation “because to me it is remembering my husband. Everything is in his memory, which is a very beautiful thing to me.” Harry died two years ago.
At the gathering, Rabbi Abraham Mykoff praised Shopowich, comparing her to the biblical prophetess Deborah and calling her “a leader of klal Yisrael.”
“You have inspired us to secure the future of Poile Zedek as we flourish and prosper,” he said, expressing the hope that the newly beautified sanctuary would attract more worshipers.
The ceremony featured a procession of community rabbis and shul leaders carrying Torah scrolls as they circled the bima.
Congregation recording secretary Dr. Ira Gang presented Shopowich, now a Highland Park resident, with a large framed proclamation from that borough’s mayor, Gary Minkoff.
In presenting a montage of photos of the building and sanctuary, shul executive director Robert Dorfman told Shopowich, “Your kindness and actions will always be a part of the history of Congregation Poile Zedek.”
Dorfman, who became part of the Poile Zedek community 42 years ago when he married into a family whose roots in the congregation extend back more than a century, said the shul still needs as much as $750,000 worth of repairs and that fund-raising for upgrades would continue.
According to biographical details made available at the program, Harry Shopowich was born Froim Szczapowicz in Boimie, Poland, 40 miles outside Warsaw. At the onset of World War II, he and his brother escaped from a forced labor detail and spent the next four years living in the woods hiding from the Nazis. They evaded capture, using a branch disguised as a rifle and a sling shot for protection. At war’s end, they made their way to a displaced persons’ camp in Naples, Italy.
Dora, born Dveire Kremer in Dokshitz in what was then Poland, was the youngest of seven children. From 1941 to 1943, the family was hidden by a Christian in the village of Loti and then joined a partisans’ group. After the war, Dora made her way to a different displaced persons’ camp in Naples.
The couple met at a dance held for the refugees and married in one of the dp camps in 1948. In 1951, they immigrated to New Brunswick as Harry and Dora Shopowich, settling in a multi-family house two doors from Poile Zedek. Harry worked in a factory for 35 years before the couple bought a chicken farm in South Brunswick. They later moved to Highland Park. The couple has three children and three grandchildren.
Daughter Ellen Horowitz of East Brunswick said her mother wanted to restore the historic synagogue “to its former glory so other people could benefit from what the shul offered her and my father.”
Granddaughter Simone Shopowich, 18, of Highland Park called her grandmother’s gesture “a really great inspiration.”
“My grandmother is a role model,” she said. “I hope to do as much hesed for the shul in the future.”