Shofar blasts heralded the rebirth of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth as hundreds gathered for “a wonderful, special, and holy moment” to watch the synagogue’s Torah scrolls paraded into the new sanctuary.
Less than four years after an August 2006 fire destroyed the sanctuary and much of the synagogue’s first floor, its renovation was marked May 2.
The event, coinciding with Lag B’Omer, drew congregants, political leaders — including Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Dist. 6) — and first responders who helped extinguish the fire and rescued Torah scrolls and other ritual items.
They also saved the stained-glass windows, created in 1976 by renowned artist Philip Ratner, now cleaned and framing the sanctuary’s bima.
The spirit first exhibited on that summer day, said president Carl Levy, was what “allowed us to soar and fly again.”
“We are starting a new era in the shul’s history,” proclaimed Rabbi Eliot Malomet. “We have learned perspective. The Jewish people have been through a lot, but this was just an accident. While this was traumatic, it is something we know we can recover from. That no one was hurt made it infinitely better. We learned life goes on and Jewish life goes on….
“We learned a shul is more than building; it is people.”
Rabbi William H. Lebeau, immediate past vice chancellor and dean of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, recalled offering his condolences to Malomet after the fire and being struck by his positive response.
“He said, ‘It’s going to be all right. I have an extraordinary congregation.’” Lebeau said Malomet “foresaw this day; he saw the light and magnificence of this place. He saw the light because of you.”
A $4.5 million rebuilding campaign has allowed the congregation to include long-dreamed about improvements, including an expanded sanctuary. Fund-raising remains ongoing, added Malomet.
The project has increased the synagogue’s size about 5,000 square feet, mostly through the sanctuary enlargement, which now for the first time has its ark facing east toward Jerusalem.
Highland Park Mayor Stephen Nolan likened the synagogue to “a phoenix rising from the ashes.” He noted the congregation’s community is “an important part of the Highland Park family.”
Councilwoman Gayle Brill Mittler, a former temple president, referred to the local Jewish and non-Jewish institutions that provided space and support to the synagogue in the wake of fire. The strength of the temple, she said, “is the strength of the community.”
It was also announced that the synagogue’s beit midrash, or study center, would be named for Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath and his wife, Devorah; Hilsenrath served as religious leader for 30 years.
The renamed Kaplan Rutman Sanctuary honors the parents of Helen and Michael Kaplan; the social hall, the parents of Joe and Harriet Tabak, Dorothy and Mo Engelhardt, and Beatrice and Aaron Tabak; and the library, Arline and Henry Schwartzman.