Making a minyan in Paterson

Making a minyan in Paterson

Vladamir Neplodnik, a resident of Paterson’s Federation Apartments, in the building’s synagogue.

Every other Shabbat, Jerry Schranz crosses the Passaic River to keep the final echo of Paterson’s once-storied Jewish community alive.

It’s a one and three quarters mile walk from his Fair Lawn home to East 27th Street, in what 50 years ago was the center of Paterson’s Jewish life. East 27th Street was the sensible place for the Jewish Federation of North Jersey to build housing for seniors: It was three blocks away from Barnert Temple and half a mile from the Barnet Hospital – both named for the Jewish industrialist and philanthropist who was Paterson’s mayor from 1889 to 1890. And it was across the street from the Yavneh Academy, Paterson’s Jewish day school.

Today, Barnert Temple, founded in 1847, is an empty shell; the Reform congregation moved elsewhere in Paterson in 1964 before decamping to Franklin Lakes in the 1980s. Yavneh moved to Paramus in 1981; the building is now home to the Rosa Parks High School of Performing Arts.

The Federation Apartments, however, continues to be home to dozens of elderly Jews. Sandy Eckstein, the building’s director, estimates that 40 percent of the 158 residents are Jewish. All but a handful of the tenants are subsidized by federal Section 8 vouchers; they must be at least 62 years old, and they must qualify as low income. The Jews in the building are from a different generation than those who moved in when the building opened in 1972; rather than coming from Paterson, all but eight of them were born in the former Soviet Union. This is because of Paterson’s proximity to Fair Lawn, which became the center for North Jersey’s resettlement of Soviet Jews beginning in the 1970s. It is not an assisted living facility – there is no nurse on staff – but many residents are in their 90s, and they have aides to help them with some daily tasks.

Signs in the building are in three languages – English, Spanish, and Russian. And in the basement synagogue, across from the boiler room, Russian-language prayer books fill the shelves, and a Russian-labeled map of Israel is affixed to a pillar.

Russians are not known to be the most ardent of synagogue-goers; generations of official Soviet atheism took its toll. Yet there is a hardcore group of seniors in the Federation Apartments who attend services. Most of the half dozen are from the former Soviet Union. They are dependent on a small contingent of outsiders from Fair Lawn, like Mr. Schranz, to help make the minyan, and on paid Torah readers. These days, the minyan has a reader twice a month, so that is how often it meets.

The seniors who attend the minyan are enthusiastic as they show a visitor their synagogue.

“I like this synagogue,” Vladamir Neplodnik said. He came to the Federation Apartments from New York. Before that he lived in Moscow; he was born in the northern Caucasus.

“I like all synagogues,” he adds.

In general, expenses for the synagogue – in particular, hiring the Torah reader – are split between the Federation Apartments and the synagogue’s own account. The synagogue charges membership for High Holy Day services, when there is a larger turnout. Dues are $10. Members also contribute $10 for Yizkor. The synagogue’s electricity and heat are part of the general building expenses; the building’s custodian turns out the lights after services and disposes of the garbage from the kiddush.

Isak Meryam is in charge of the minyan in the Apartments. On Fridays, he’ll call to make sure people are coming. He opens up the synagogue on Shabbat mornings at 8 a.m., an hour before services begins. He leads the beginning of the service. He sets up the table where a kiddush of herring and shnapps will be served after services. And finally, he cleans up.

Mr. Meryam speaks pretty good English – it is one of his five languages. He is from Latvia. He was wounded in the Latvian army, where he met Roza, a nurse he soon married. That was 63 years ago. “Baruch Hashem, she is looking very nice,” he says. Roza is one of the two women who attend services regularly. (Holidays bring more women to the women’s section.)

Charles Lehmann is the one American-born resident who is a minyan regular. He grew up in New York City and lived in a number of places before moving to New Jersey in 1990. He has been in the Federation Apartments for a little over three years. And in that time, “I’ve been here for every service,” he said.

Before this, he was not a regular synagogue-goer.

“One of the reasons I moved into the building was to try to get some religious education,” he said. “Growing up I was not raised religious. My parents were of two different religions.”

Mr. Schranz originally was recruited for the Apartments minyan by a member of his softball team. “I didn’t know where Paterson was,” Mr. Schranz recalled. “It was about a 45 minute walk for me.”

He became a regular.

“Everybody gets involved. That’s the essence of the shul,” he said.

A fellow Fair Lawn resident, Sam Heller, coordinates the minyan, arranging for the Torah reader and making sure that enough men will arrive to make a minyan. (The synagogue is Orthodox, as are most of the outsiders who attend.)

Now, though, four decades of low-budget no-rabbi synagogue maintenance have caught up with the synagogue.

“We were worried the Torah was going to fall apart in our hands,” Mr. Schranz said. The Yavneh Academy donated the two Torah scrolls in the late 70s. Now, the seams were coming unsewn, the handles were falling apart, and letters were fading. Even the belt holding the scrolls was going slack.

It was time for repairs.

In the spirit of the minyan, Mr. Schranz jumped in and found a scribe in Fair Lawn who could make the necessary repairs.

The expected price tag: $3,600.

Ms. Eckstein said the building would put up the money. The Torah scrolls were given to the scribe. Anshei Lubavitch in Fair Lawn lent a Torah for the minyan to use in the meantime.

Mr. Schranz, though, would like the broader community to contribute to the repair project. He sees his call to support the minyan as a way of connecting people scattered by the Paterson diaspora – the Jews of Fair Lawn and Wayne and Franklin Lakes and elsewhere who left Paterson, or whose parents left Paterson.

He also looked into the history of the two Torah scrolls. One was donated by the Sussman family in 1953. He tracked down the 99-year-old daughter of the donor, and discovered that her grandson, Chaim Sussman – the donor’s great grandson – teaches at Yavneh.

Beyond the Torah repair, Mr. Schranz would love to have money to buy new prayer books. “I think the chairs could probably need an upgrade,” he said. “You have elderly people sitting on chairs without armrests.”

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