It looked like an old artillery shell.
But when we looked more closely, we saw that it was a brass tube, sealed at both ends. It was a time capsule; it had been buried in New Milford for more than half a century, and it held memories of the now-closed New Milford Jewish Center, Congregation Beth Tikvah.
About seven years ago, the synagogue closed its doors, victim of a rapidly diminishing membership, and merged with the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. The building was sold to a Korean church and most of the items inside it were taken to Paramus. That, we thought, was that.
But in an email to Howard Cohn, like me a past NMJC president, Rabbi Harold Halpern asked if anyone had found it. Rabbi Halpern had led the congregation from 1961 to 1985, when he moved to Israel.
No one had found it, or looked for it, or even thought about it — because no one else knew that it existed.
Rabbi Halpern told Howard that it had been buried in front of the synagogue in 1965, when the congregation’s building expansion was dedicated. There was no way to find it later, because no one knew exactly where it had been buried. It would have been unthinkable to ask the Korean church to dig up the lawn to hunt for it.
Until, that is, the church dug up the lawn.
Howard drove by and saw that work was being done on the lawn. He met with Rev. David Yi to ask him to be on the lookout for a metal container buried there. Not too long after that, the workmen found what they at first thought was construction debris. Rev. Yi realized it was the artifact Mr. Cohn had told him about.
Rev. Yi got in touch with Howard and me and made arrangements to turn the brass tube over to us. Last Wednesday we three met and with a few smacks of a hammer knocked off the sealed cap that had covered the tube since May 16, 1965. It had been buried with fanfare on that day at 2 p.m.
Rabbi Halpern also had asked about a dedication stone brought from the Negev Desert in Israel; it was the synagogue’s name plate. Unfortunately, it had been broken when it was dug up, and had been thrown away.
Once the cap was removed, Howard, the Rev. Yi, and I removed the documents, which were remarkably well preserved. They included several rolls of parchment with the names of all the founding members of the original Tri-Boro Synagogue, later named the New Milford Jewish Center/Congregation Beth Tikvah. The original name reflected the communities it served — New Milford, River Edge, and Oradell. There was also a paper detailing the history of the shul’s founding.
Rabbi Halpern told me that in 1965, the program for the dedication and burial of the time capsule started with a presentation of the colors by the Lt. Louis Faller Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The group sang “America the Beautiful” while members Sidney Saslow and Harry Burde put the documents and memorabilia into the capsule.
Cantor Butensky and Rabbi Halpern recited prayers and then the rabbi quoted Jacob from the book of Genesis: “This stone that I have set up shall be a place of God.” Members Murray Hendel and Norman Schwartz attached mezuzahs to the door posts, Carolyn Levine, Florence Grant and Evelyn Bernstein opened the doors, and the members entered for the first time.
In a show of ecumenism, Pastor Samuel Fleming of the Presbyterian Church recited an invocation and Charles Nathanson welcomed the assemblage. Rabbi Simon Greenberg, vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered the keynote address and Congressman Henry Helstoski (D-8th Dist.) presented the congregation with a flag that had flown over the Capitol building in Washington.
The artifacts that had been buried in the capsulate will be presented to the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah, where most of the New Milford congregants now belong.
Bob Nesoff of New Milford is a past president of the former New Milford Jewish Center.