ANOTHER COINCIDENCE DEALING WITH THE PAROCHET (ARK CURTAIN) AT CONGREGATION BETH SHALOM, MUNICH; AND BETH HILLEL IN WASHINGTON HEIGHTS NYC.
BETH HILLEL WAS THE CONGREGATION THAT MARTIN OETTINER TOOK RICK LANDMAN TO AS A CHILD FOR SHABBAT SERVICES. IN THE 1950's THE LITTLE TORAH WAS HOUSED IN THE ARK BEHIND THIS PAROCHET.
From left to the right: Maria Drach, Board member of BS, Adrian Michael Schell, Board member of BS, Fred Fischer, Jan Muehlstein, In front of the Parochet that used to hang in Beth Hillel, New York City during the 1940's - 1970's. In the 1950's, the "Little Torah" was kept behind this Parochet at Beth Hillel. Martin Oettinger took Rick Landman as a child to pray at Beth Hillel and both would have davened in front of this Parochet.
Rick Landman standing with the Torah that his grandfather brought to America and that he returned to Munich in front of the Parochet that used to be in Beth Hillel Synagogue.
After long journey, Torah curtain returns to its German Jewish roots
By Toby Axelrod
BERLIN, Nov. 9, 2003 (JTA) -- For a Torah curtain, it certainly has come a long way. Almost exactly 65 years to the day after Kristallnacht, the curtain, or parochet, which once belonged to a congregation of German Jewish exiles in New York, now covers the Torah ark in one of Germany's’s newest synagogues.
It is a poignant sign of Jewish revival in a country that, not too long ago, symbolized the death of European Jewry.
On Nov. 15, a Reform congregation in Munich, Congregation Beth Shalom, will formally dedicate its new quarters. The green, velvet curtain with gold letters and fringe will find its permanent home there.
"We will have a celebratory service," said Jan Muehlstein, president of the congregation and of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The arrival of the Torah curtain, which once graced the New York synagogue of Jewish emigres from Munich, is heralded almost universally as a good sign. And it is especially fitting that it is to be dedicated just after the commemoration of the pogrom in Germany that presaged the Holocaust.
On November 9-10, 1938, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed across Germany and Austria in a night called Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass.
Today, Jewish life in Germany is growing again.
New synagogues have been built across the country to accommodate a population that has tripled to more than 100,000 in the last 12 years, with the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union. New synagogues need Torahs. And Torahs need arks and pointers and covers and curtains.
The discovery of this curtain, say some, is a sign of destiny.
Berlin Jewish artist Anna Adam happened upon it by coincidence last summer at a flea market in Berlin.
Adam had been scouring the market for material for her latest project when a stall with old Communist flags caught her eye.
"I thought: That's cool," Adam said.
She inspected the stall more closely, and among the heavy red silk banners printed with Lenin's visage, she saw a musty, dusty green curtain with Hebrew embroidery.
Adam asked the Russian saleswoman what it was. "They said, 'Oh, it is something Jewish probably.' I thought perhaps it was stolen from Eastern Europe."
Adam contacted Rabbi Walter Rothschild and his wife, Jacqueline, who live in Berlin. When they arrived at the market, the stand was closed.
But next morning the stand was back again, she said, and the Torah curtain was there, too.
Rothschild, who works at Beth Shalom and another Reform synagogue in the city of Koeln, took one look at the inscription on the back, and "my first thought was that it had been stolen," said Rothschild, whose parents emigrated from Germany to England before he was born.
The label said it was from Congregation Beth Hillel in New York City, dedicated in memory of a revered rebbetzin, Rothschild said. He resolved to find that congregation.
"It was one of those things you have to rescue," he said in an interview with JTA. "At any rate, it had to be returned to Jewish hands."
Adam bargained down the price.
Jacqueline Rothschild brought the curtain home and repaired it. Walter Rothschild started researching the curtain's past, and found that Congregation Beth Hillel had been dissolved three years ago, its accouterments distributed among members and other synagogues.
The congregation had been founded in 1939, the year after Kristallnacht. Most of its founding members came from Munich.
According to former member Erich Bloch, who described the history in the Aufbau newspaper in August 2002, the first High Holiday services in 1940 were presided over by the former chief rabbi of Munich, Leo Baerwald, and held in a local movie theater. A large group of Jews from Nuremberg joined the congregation with their rabbi, Isaak Heilbrun, in 1941.
In 1948, the congregation dedicated its own sanctuary. In 1957, they held their first memorial service for Kristallnacht.
A vibrant Jewish congregation thus grew, proud of its German roots but grateful to the country that took them in.
"We had a lot of members," recalled New Yorker Fay Blank, 71, in a telephone interview. Her husband, William, 86, is a former president of the synagogue. "Men and women never sat together,"she said. "And later we got a very Orthodox rabbi and they built a mechitzah, a barrier separating men and women."
German identity was very strong among the congregants, said Blank, who comes from Lucerne, Switzerland. Her husband is from Fuerth, Germany.
"The rabbi gave sermons one week in German, the next week in English," she said. They sang German nigunim, or Jewish melodies, and while they had an organ, they used it only for weddings and not on the Sabbath.
The members did not talk too much about what happened in the Germany during the war, she said. "The people were so busy. They had started a new life in this country and they all made it," she said. "German Jews are very ambitious."
Eventually, the generation of founders left New York or died out. The congregation grew smaller. It became difficult to get a minyan together.
The final Sabbath service was held on April 1, 2000.
Then, Congregation Beth Hillel became part of Congregation Mount Sinai, where the memorial plates for deceased members of the congregation now are on display.
"That gives people a good feeling," said Blank, who helped pack up the congregation's German-Hebrew prayer books, some 100 years old, and sent them, together with tallitot, to a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation in Munich.
Some members reclaimed certain synagogue effects that they had given on loan, including a wall hanging that had come from Munich. Other items were sent to museums.
"We were so happy that things went to places where they had a value to someone," Blank said. She said she was troubled to hear that the Torah curtain ended up at a Berlin flea market.
It remains a mystery how it got there.
But Adam said she is not really surprised that it crossed her path.
"Things like that happen to me all the time," she said. "I am always on the search for things and always find Jewish themes in the society in places where I don't expect to find them.
Now that the curtain is back to its roots, Adam said, "I find that very nice. To me it is important that it now has a function and is not in a flea market."
The curtain now hangs at Congregation Beth Shalom. Blank says she can live with that.
"If it is there and being used, that is marvelous, she said. "What should we do, go and see how it got there? That doesn't make much sense. Maybe we will never know the truth."
A Story behind a Parochet
This Parochet was found by Anna Adam in a 'flea market' in Berlin in July 2003; it was purchased, cleaned and repaired by Rabbetzen Jacqueline Rothschild (Sheyne bat Yitzhak), with assistance from Anna Adam.
The inscription on the front reads:
"A woman who fears the Lord, she is to be Praised" (from Proverbs Ch. 31:30), and "In Eternal Memory of Rabbanit Sheyndel bat Gershom HaLevi (Aleha haShalom), from the Holy Community Beth Hillel."
An inscription, on the rear, reads:
"In memory of Jenny Baerwald Congregation Beth Hillel of Washington Heights Pesach 5727 " (1967)
Investigation disclosed that the Parochet had originated in a very special congregation in New York, which had recently closed down. Here is the story of that community:
Adapted from "Aufbau" August 8, 2002, by Eric Bloch.
Congregation Beth Hillel was founded and organized in 1939 by recent refugees from München (Munich) along with a handful of former Munich Jews who had been living in New York for longer. Religious services commenced with the High Holy Day observances of 1940, officiated over by Rabbi Leo Baerwald, former Chief Rabbi of München. The services were held in a rented hall, "The Paramount", which was nearly filled to its seating capacity of 800. In early 1941, a large body of former Nürnberg Jews, with their rabbi, Isaak Heilbronn, joined the nascent congregation. (Rabbi Heilbronn died two years later to great sorrow.) A Hebrew school (initially 20 children), sisterhood and a congregational bulletin ('Bulletin') were started, followed by a youth group and Chevra Kaddisha (burial society).
Religious services and rituals were those of south German, liberal Judaism. The sermons were in German; familiar melodies were sung with enthusiasm and services were conducted with warmth and dignity (including the exhortation "Größte Ruhe, bitte!" [Absolute quiet, please!]). The limited resources of a fledgling congregation were reflected in the location of the Hebrew school in the homes of its teachers and of the congregational office in the home of the secretary. The Bulletin, comprising several mimeographed pages, contained predominantly congregational and family notices and some advertisements, mostly in German. There was also the exhortation (in German): "Learn English! Speak English!" Lists were printed of members available for medical, legal and insurance services, some gratis or at reduced rates. Advertisements reflected the efforts to found successful businesses (some located in peoples' apartments), to demonstrate competence and reliability in a former life ("shoe-repairing, früher Schuhmachermeister [formerly master cobbler] in Marburg"), and echoes of German customs, especially culinary ones ("Mastgänse nach deutscher Art [force-fed geese according to German style]: 33 c/lb." and, every Friday, 'Berches' [challah]). Membership fees were small; social functions were festive, innovative and simple.
The Congregation grew from 200 families in 1940 to 750 in 1948, with many southern German localities now represented. High Holy Day services required renting a second or even a third hall; a male choir was instituted; the Bulletin (1943) began including one or two articles, some in English, and each issue was printed. By 1946, the Congregation had purchased 950 cemetery plots. Reflecting increased financial resources, the Congregation purchased its own building in 1946, and in 1948 completed and dedicated the sanctuary.
The new-comers were strongly motivated to form stable communities and to integrate into the American economy and culture as speedily as possible. In this, they succeeded remarkably well, in part through their own efforts, in part through the changed economic climate engendered by World War II. By 1950, they were an established society enjoying modest and increasing prosperity. They also developed a transient new language: Deunglish, as in "Have you gelunched?" or the converse "Ich gehe ins movie für ein dime." The period of economic transition, of acculturation, had been largely completed. In the process, some individuals severed their ties to Central European organizations. However, the large majority retained its communal affiliation.
In possession of its own building and synagogue, Congregation Beth Hillel entered its "golden age." The next 15 years, extending into the mid-1960's, saw the rich and diverse activities of a dynamic congregation. Membership remained stable at 700 to 800 families. The synagogue continued to be the beneficiary of donations and legacies of loyal members; 14 Torah scrolls rested in the ark, most of them rescued from congregations in Germany. A Shabbat youth service was initiated in 1950, and the first communal Seder took place in 1951. Distinguished American and foreign rabbis and scholars, including Leo Baeck, Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz (Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom), Marcus Melchior (Chief Rabbi of Denmark) and Israel Porush (Chief Minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney), delivered guest sermons and lectures. Concerts, bazaars, holiday festivities, dinner dances, youth group and Hebrew school programs filled the calendar during the course of each year. Annual Blue Card and United Jewish Appeal drives were supported through dinners or affairs. The Bulletin increased in size. The Hebrew school, well supported by the Congregation and the Parents Association, now consisted of six grades, post-graduate courses and had a yearly enrollment of 80 to 130 children.
In 1955, Rabbi Baerwald retired, and was followed by Rabbi Hugo Stransky, also of Central European (Bohemian) background, modified by rabbinical service in England. Under his progressive guidance, the language and conduct of services were modified to accommodate the younger generation, those who had immigrated as children or were born in New York, but without alienating those clinging to their German ritual background. American prayer books with modern English translations were purchased for use at Shabbat and holiday services. German alternated with English sermons. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony was modified to be more meaningful and attractive to the boy, his parents and the audience. And a Bat Mitzvah course was initiated. Post-graduate and adult education (Talmudic studies) courses were offered to wide participation. In 1957, Kristallnacht memorial services were instituted.
Rabbi Stransky developed the Bulletin into a unique periodical, rarely found in publications from comparable organizations. Its size increased to 32, mostly English, pages, and up to eight scholarly articles were included per issue.
In 1966, the Congregation celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala dinner dance and an "Anniversary Journal."
Beginning in the 1950's and accelerating and intensifying into the 1970's, another "emigration" became evident: the move of the younger generations from Washington Heights to the suburbs of New York City and beyond, and of the older population to retirement outside New York or to the cemetery. Replenishment, specifically of the dwindling Jewish population, by in-migration was negligible.
Membership in the Congregation contracted from 730 families in 1962 to about 450 in 1979. Enrollment in the Hebrew school in 1960 was 120 pupils; by 1970 the school had ceased to exist. The Congregation now emphasized meeting the needs of its aging congregants, with daily services and a diversified program of cultural and social activities. In 1976, Rabbi Stransky retired from the pulpit and the Congregation's first American-born rabbi, Abraham Hartstein, assumed the spiritual leadership. Prayer services were conducted in English. Declining membership and service attendance led to the decision (1980) of a merger between Congregations Beth Hillel and Beth Israel of Washington Heights, two congregations very similar in ritual observances and traditions. Rabbi Shlomo Kahn, the scholarly and esteemed rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel for 28 years, became the sole spiritual leader of the united congregation two years later.
William Blank, President of the Congregation, aptly summarized the state of the Congregation in 1989 on the occasion of the 50th and 40th anniversaries of Congregations Beth Hillel and Beth Israel, respectively: "Most of our members are senior citizens, but it is exactly those over 75 who enable us to have daily services. And we still have a sizeable membership, an active Chevra Kaddisha, a hard-working sisterhood, a Family Club with weekly meetings, our own synagogue choir. Our committees are functioning properly; our finances are in order."
The inexorable process of aging and loss (one witticism heard was that "the Congregation had largely relocated from Washington Heights to Cedar Park and Beth El cemeteries in New Jersey"), and ultimately the inability to assure the presence of ten men needed to hold services decided the fate of the Congregation. The last Shabbat service was held on April 1, 2000; by year's end, the Congregation ceased to exist. Rabbi Kahn died on September 17, 2000.
The congregations of Beth Hillel, Beth Israel, and others, their lay and spiritual leadership, their teachers and supporting staff, discharged their functions diligently, responsibly and successfully. It would certainly have been their wish that the next generations remember the practical aid and spiritual sustenance that these congregations provided their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
(The author, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, whose parents were among the founders of Congregation Beth Hillel, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and wedding there, was the chairman of the Bulletin Committee, and a member of the Board of Trustees for many years.
|November 9, 2004 Kristallnacht Program at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (NYC) where the ownership of the Torah was transfered to Congregation Beth Shalom of Munich (includes photos)|
|Newspaper Articles and Letters Received Concerning the Torah|
|June 10-12, 2005 Dedication Program in Munich|
|November 9, 2004 - Photos of the Kristallnacht Program at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (NYC) where the ownership of the Torah was transfered to Congregation Beth Shalom of Munich|
|November 9, 2004 - Newspaper Articles and Letters Received Concerning the Transfer of the Torah from NYC to Munich|
|November 14, 2004- Photos and Stories of the Torah AFTER Reaching Munich|
|Story about the Ark Cover (Parochet) that also found its way back to Munich.|
Uffenheim & Friedberg to Nuremberg to NYC
ZASLAW TO MUNICH TO AUGSBURG TO NYC