New Castle congregation closes but offers help to worldwide Jewish communities
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Preserving their legacyNew Castle congregation offers help worldwide

New Castle congregation closes but offers help to worldwide Jewish communities

The congregation has sent torahs to Warsaw, Poland and Jakarta, Indonesia as well as two more to Houston and South Carolina.

In the Papuan community, one of the communities that Temple Hadar Israel donated a Torah to, there is a Shabbat morning tradition in which the boys and young men wear arbah kanfot (a white four-cornered garment with special knotted strings at each corner) over their clothing during the service. (Photo by Rabbi David Kunin)
In the Papuan community, one of the communities that Temple Hadar Israel donated a Torah to, there is a Shabbat morning tradition in which the boys and young men wear arbah kanfot (a white four-cornered garment with special knotted strings at each corner) over their clothing during the service. (Photo by Rabbi David Kunin)

There undoubtedly will be a few tears shed, but when the last remaining synagogue in New Castle shutters its doors at the end of this month, its remaining congregants will have a lot to feel good about, knowing for sure that Temple Hadar Israel’s legacy will continue to thrive literally all over the world.

Beit Centrum Ki Tov, a new progressive congregation in Warsaw, Poland, received its first Torah last year as a gift from Temple Hadar Israel, and the New Castle congregation has since donated a Torah to a new congregation in South Carolina.

This week, two more Torahs from Temple Hadar Israel will be making their way to new homes: one to a congregation in Houston that was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey; and another to an emerging Jewish population in Jakarta, Indonesia.

“Our whole mission is to provide help and support to others as we leave our congregation,” said Sam Bernstine, president of Temple Hadar Israel.

By donating their Torahs to other Jewish communities that need them, Bernstine said Temple Hadar Israel was “sending a spiritual message.”

“I wish we could do more,” he added.

During its heyday in the 1950s, Temple Hadar Israel served about 300 families, but as Jews moved from the small town to larger urban centers, membership dwindled. The congregation now has about 60 members on its books, with only about 20 who remain active and engaged, Bernstine said.

In winding up his congregation’s affairs — with a focus on preserving its legacy — Bernstine has been working with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, as well as David Sarnat, president of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which is based in Atlanta.

The JCLP provides guidance to small congregations across the nation that are struggling to survive and to those that are closing. The organization finds homes for the congregations’ treasured artifacts and ritual items, as well as help them plan for perpetual care of their cemeteries.

It was the JCLP that made the shidduch between Temple Hadar Israel and the emerging Jewish community of Indonesia.

“This is one of the things that the Jewish Community Legacy Project does,” said Sarnat. “We try to take the assets of a closing congregation and recycle those Jewish resources, brokering relationships to allow dwindling congregations to leave a footprint.”

The congregation in New Castle, Sarnat observed, “is a poster child for that.”

Temple Hadar Israel religious chairman Art Epstein, left, and President Sam Bernstine prepare to ship a Torah to Houston. (Photo courtesy of Sam Bernstine)
David Kunin, a Conservative rabbi who serves the Jewish community of Japan and has been working for the last three years with the emerging Jewish communities on Java and in Papua Indonesia, said receiving the New Castle Torah “is beyond my wildest dreams.”

The new communities of Indonesian Jews are descendants of Dutch, Spanish and Baghdadi Jews who “are rediscovering their heritage and creating a vibrant unique community,” Kunin said. They are spread across thousands of miles and several islands and grapple with a shortage of Jewish resources.

The communities, though small, are “vibrant,” he said.

All told, Kunin estimates that there are about 150 people in the Indonesian archipelago who for the past 15 years have been reclaiming their Judaism. Along with Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky, a progressive rabbi from Adelaide, Australia, Kunin converted 60 members of the community on his most recent trip to Indonesia, which was in July 2016. While some community members are halachically Jewish, Kunin explained, others require conversion.

Kunin and Kaminsky teach members of the Indonesian Jewish community weekly via Skype.

“They are very excited about studying,” Kunin said. “And when we are there, they want Torah the whole time.”

The community members are serious about embracing their Judaism, Kunin said, and spend a lot of time online learning from other Jewish sources as well.

“Their Hebrew is amazing,” he said.

Up until now, the disparate emerging Jewish communities of Indonesia have been sharing a single Torah, which has traveled thousands of miles to be used by the various communities for different holidays. Small, paper Torah facsimiles that are not kosher are used by the communities at other times.

Although Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and Judaism is not one of its six officially recognized religions, Kunin said he has seen no signs of anti-Semitism there.

Kunin, who was in North America last week for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism convention in Atlanta, had made arrangements to rendezvous with Bernstine in New Jersey on Monday to pick up the New Castle Torah, which he was planning to take on the plane with him to Japan, then carry to Jakarta when he travels there next month. He also will be transporting a second Torah from a congregation that recently closed in Edmonton, Canada, to be used by the Jewish community in Papua.

In addition to packing and wrapping the Torah headed to Jakarta, Bernstine was busy last week preparing another Torah for its trip to Texas, where it will be used by the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, which suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Harvey.

While the 320-family congregation was able to save its Torahs from the storm, it lost all almost of its siddurim and High Holiday prayer books. Its sanctuary, administrative offices, library and classrooms also suffered extensive damage, having been submerged beneath 4 or 5 feet of water, according to Barry Gelman, the congregation’s rabbi.

The congregation is still unable to use its main sanctuary and holds services in its social hall.

“It remains to be seen what is the future of our main building,” Gelman said, adding that his congregation may have to construct a new, elevated building.

“While we did not lose a Torah, this is a welcome gesture that would bring our congregation a boost, knowing that another congregation is looking out for us,” Gelman said. “We are moved by their generosity of spirit.”

A friend of Howie Stein, spiritual leader of Temple Hadar Israel, who happened to be traveling to Houston for business this week, offered to take the Torah with him on the airplane and deliver it to the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston.

Another of Temple Hadar Israel’s Torahs — one that had been hidden in Poland during the Holocaust and recovered in the 1970s — will be donated to the Hillel Jewish University Center to be used by college students, Stein noted. A dedication ceremony for that Torah is being planned for the weekend of Feb. 9-10.

“That our Sifrei Torah are going to a number of different places and will continue to be used is a wonderful feeling for me,” Stein said. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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