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Stairway to heaven

Yeshivat Noam inaugurates an ark of memories

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Rabbi Steven Riskin demonstrates how he would spin the Torah holder when the ark installed in Noam was in its original Lincoln Square Synagogue home. Right, the ark closed and open. yeshivat Noam

The ark of Martha Cohn, who loved children but had none of her own, has come to a rest among the middle schoolers of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus.

Born in German in 1902, Ms. Cohn was already in her thirties when Hitler rose to power. She and her sister heeded the signs and found their way to America. The rest of her family was murdered.

In 1965, she was hired by Rabbi Steven Riskin as the first secretary of the nascent Lincoln Square Synagogue. The synagogue was meeting in an apartment in the Lincoln Square Apartments, part of the urban renewal project that included nearby Lincoln Center. Soon it would build its own building, and by the 1970s it had become the foremost modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan – if not all of America.

A widow, Ms. Cohen devoted her life to the synagogue. She memorized all the members’ phone numbers, Rabbi Riskin recalled last week; she would arrive early, stay late, and walk to work when a blizzard shut down the city’s buses.

If she was not young when she started working at the synagogue, she was even less young when she decided that she wanted to make a gift to the synagogue, to dedicate an ark in the congregation’s sanctuary. She must have seen it as her legacy, a chance to make a lasting contribution to the synagogue. How many secretaries are able to dedicate a $100,000 Torah ark in memory of their parents?

The synagogue commissioned noted synagogue architect – and Rabbi Riskin’s son-in-law – Edward Jacobs. The ark he designed echoed the famous in-the-round architecture of the synagogue: A tall cylinder, fronted with a menorah. On the inside, the Torah scrolls were placed on a rotating stand, stacked like a spiral staircase.

Rabbi Riskin would turn the stand when he stood by the open ark to take out the Torah, because the sight of the spinning Torahs pleased Mrs. Cohn.

“The rabbi makes the Torahs dance,” he recalled her saying, “I like the Torahs to be dancing.”

Mrs. Cohen died in 1997. In 2012, following years of cost overruns and delays, the congregation moved into a new building. It was a new building with a new sanctuary with a new ark – which a donor would dedicate to Mrs. Cohn’s memory – but while there had been talk of moving the old ark into the smaller chapel, apparently nobody told the architect. The room’s ceiling was just too low.

What to do?

Jewish law is clear: An ark that has held the holy Torah itself becomes holy. It cannot be discarded. It must be buried in a cemetery. That was set to be its fate.

“When I heard that, I burst into tears,” Rabbi Riskin said.

The ideal solution would be to find the old ark a new home.

How?

It’s not that you can’t sell an ark on eBay – you can in fact order a custom-made ornate Italian-style Torah ark from Israel on eBay, for only $1,800 plus $180 shipping. But most synagogues in need of an ark probably aren’t looking there. And how many synagogues need an ark?

The solution was more old-fashioned. A shadchan. A matchmaker. In the person, it turned out, of Chaim Birman of Teaneck.

Mr. Birman is a construction project manager, working for a firm that helps nonprofits. In that capacity, he worked on the new Lincoln Square Synagogue building and learned about its ark problem.

He is also a parent, with four children attending Yeshivat Noam. Not surprisingly, he was on the committee that oversaw the school’s 2012 addition.

At some point he realized that the synagogue’s homeless ark might just fit in the school’s new synagogue space, if the ceiling could be raised just a bit above it. So he brought the two parties together and a plan was hatched.

Members of the synagogue raised money – its website says $32,000 – to pay for the ark’s storage, dismantling, transportation, reassembly, and the necessary changes to Yeshivat Noam’s ceiling.

The plan was finalized this summer. The ark was installed last month, and last Thursday, at the first Torah service of the new year, Rabbi Riskin came to Paramus to tell the students the story of the ark, and Mrs. Cohen.

“When I heard it was coming here, you have no idea how happy it made me feel,” he said. “It’s an aron kodesh” – an ark – “that was dedicated by a very, very special woman. Because she had no children, the Torah and children and the future of Torah was the most important thing for her.”

“It’s a nice ending to the saga of this aron,” Mr. Birman said. “Despite the disposable nature of the life we live in, certain things should not be considered disposable.”

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