After ending its long history in Perth Amboy, the former Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh is seeking to return to relatives the more than 1,300 memorial plaques that once adorned its walls.
The Orthodox synagogue closed several years ago after more than 110 years in the city. Its membership dwindled to about 25 and it could no longer draw a minyan.
A long legal battle begun by three members who challenged the sale ended last year, allowing an international meditation group to purchase the property for $925,000 and move in.
The synagogue, which was known for its lavish Byzantine design and illustrious rabbis and cantors, once boasted 800 families. As is customary in synagogues, those families donated plaques to honor the memory of loved ones and friends. Getting them back to family members has become a priority.
Volunteers have devoted hours to the “daunting” task of organizing, contacting family members, photographing, and preparing the plaques for distribution, said Dr. Mona Shangold, who grew up in the synagogue, where her parents and grandparents had been active.
Through its e-mail list and contacts with other organizations, more than 600 of the plaques have already been distributed to family members throughout the country and as far away as Australia, Europe, and Israel. “We’re very anxious to notify family members,” she said.
The plaques include those inherited from Congregation Beth Israel — also known as “the little shul” — which merged with Shaarey Tefiloh in the early 1970s.
Plaques not claimed by relatives will be disposed of. Because of their genealogical and historical importance, a digital image of all plaques will be kept.
“We spent a long time considering all options and we found no synagogue wants them or has room for them,” said Shangold. “They are a heavy bronze and any synagogue would have to have a tremendous amount of wall space and the structure to support a tremendous amount of weight. We contacted other synagogues, organizations, and museums and really no one was interested in someone else’s memorial plaques.”
While some family members have declined to accept the plaques, many others were thrilled to have them.
“It’s really been overwhelming,” said Shangold. “People have sent some very emotional letters and notes. Somehow these memorial plaques have brought back memories of growing up in Perth Amboy. It’s been a very rewarding experience for us and very moving to see how emotionally attached some people are to these plaques. Actually, the response has been a very pleasant surprise because we didn’t anticipate how enthusiastically people would receive these plaques.”
Shangold is also president of Friends for Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries, Inc., formed to raise funds and maintain Shaarey Tefiloh’s three cemeteries, two of which are in Perth Amboy and one in Fords. Funds from the synagogue’s sale have also been earmarked for upkeep of the cemeteries.
“This has been a very emotional experience for all of us,” she said.
Those interested in receiving a family member’s plaque should send contact information to FPMCJC@gmail.com or call 732-826-2977 by June 30. There is no charge if plaques are picked up in person. For others, shipping costs must be covered by the recipient.