Torah tales from Paterson

Torah tales from Paterson

Restored scrolls tell stories of past dedications

David Gellis inks the Torah scroll while the scribe looks on.
David Gellis inks the Torah scroll while the scribe looks on.

In 1927, when Nathan Barnert, Paterson’s legendary Jewish mayor and philanthropist, died childless, a fatherless child was found to say kaddish for him.

That child was David Goldberg, whose father, Gershon, had died three years earlier, when David was 9.

David Goldberg always remained connected to the Paterson community and involved in its organizations. Perhaps he felt he had to live up in some way to Mr. Barnert’s legacy. For many years, Mr. Goldberg was the president of the Yavneh Academy, which was founded in Paterson. And perhaps it was symbolic that not until 1981, the year after he died, did Yavneh leave Paterson for Paramus.

Next Sunday, David Goldberg’s son and two daughters will return briefly to Paterson. And therein lies a tale of memory, history, mystery, and dedicated investigation.

Paterson, of course, now is largely devoid of Jewish life. Its community has dispersed to Fair Lawn, Wayne, and points farther away. There are but two outposts of Judaism in the city, which, with nearly 150,000 residents, is New Jersey’s third largest, and is the American city with the second-highest Muslim population. One of them is the Yeshiva Gedolah of Paterson, a charedi yeshiva that found in the city relative isolation from the seductions of kosher pizza parlors while remaining an easy drive from Orthodox population centers. And there is the Federation Apartments, where an elderly group holds services in a basement synagogue two Shabbat mornings a month, with help from outsiders who walk from Fair Lawn to help make the minyan.

Jerry Schranz of Fair Lawn has been one of those dedicated minyan-makers for years, and he has assumed chief responsibility for the service. Last year, he set about raising money to repair the synagogue’s two Torah scrolls, which Yavneh had donated to the synagogue when the school still was across the street. This project led him to embark on a series of investigations. Motivated in part by a desire to respect the memories of an earlier time — and also by a desire to find people connected to the minyan who might be able to donate to the cause — he set out to connect the names on the ark cover, the bimah cover, and the wooden Torah handles to the descendants of the named donors.

“I’ve been looking at plaques on the walls and reading a bunch of old obituaries,” he said.

In the process, he cleared up some long-standing mysteries.

Judy Goldrich of East Brunswick was heir to one of those mysteries. (Note to our readers — despite repeated rounds of Jewish geography, Ms. Goldrich appears not to be related to our correspondent Lois Goldrich.) She is one of David Goldberg’s daughters, and remembers watching the Federation Apartments go up when she was second-grader at Yavneh. She also remembers her father’s frequent visits to the school and his occasional talk of “checking on” one of the school’s Torah scrolls, which his family had lent to the school.

After his death, however, her family’s connection to the Torah scroll was lost.

“No one knew where the sefer Torah was,” she said. Attempts to find it failed. Her mother particularly wanted to know what had happened to it. It had been dedicated by David’s mother, Chaya Goldberg, after his father’s death, and used by what was then the Paterson Talmud Torah — the institution that later evolved into Yavneh.

“My mother felt it was wrong not knowing what had happened to the sefer Torah,” Ms. Goldrich said. “Shortly before she died back in 2009, she asked us to please try to locate it. We felt very badly about it.”

And then this spring, the mystery was solved.

Mr. Schranz had seen that one of the Torah scrolls in the Federation Apartments basement had been dedicated to the memory of Gershon Goldberg by his wife, Chaya. It was inscribed in Hebrew on the wooden roller.

“Jerry proceeded to research the Goldbergs in Fair Lawn, and through the magic of the Internet and word of mouth, he was directed to our family,” Mrs. Goldrich said. “We were flabbergasted. We were shocked. We were so grateful.”

Now that they have found the Torah they had been looking for so long, what would family do? “The question came up,” Ms. Goldrich said. “We opened up a can of worms.”

But the can didn’t remain open for long.

“Given our father’s connection to the Paterson Jewish community, our family decided right away that the right thing to do was to ensure it was used by a Jewish community in Paterson that needed it,” she said. “We felt it was the perfect tribute.”

Mr. Schranz consistently found that spirit of generosity as he set about connecting the old synagogue’s artifacts to their donors’ heirs. One such artifact was the velvet cover of the bimah, the reading desk where the Torah was unscrolled and the prayers led. It was dedicated by Aaron Staretz. After Mr. Schranz appealed to readers of this paper for leads to Mr. Staretz’s relatives, he received a letter from Mr. Staretz’s daughter Claire.

Mr. Schranz learned that Aaron Staretz and his wife both worked in Yavneh’s cafeteria for more than 37 years. He told Ms. Staretz’s daughter that because the bimah had to be repaired it also would be expanded, and so the velvet cover no longer would fit.

“I can’t use this cover any more,” he told her. “Would you like it back?”

“She paused and said, ‘No, I don’t want it back,’” he recounted. “‘I’ll take this cover and bring it to a Jewish tailor and take it up to whatever dimensions you like.’”

Jerry Schranz holds one of the restored Torah scrolls.
Jerry Schranz holds one of the restored Torah scrolls.

Mr. Schranz marvels at her generosity. “That’s someone with no connections to our minyan other than a name on the bimah cover,” he said.

Mr. Schranz, though, is a font of enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Which brings us to the story of the synagogue’s second Torah scroll. This was dedicated in memory of Samuel Kossman, who died in 1953. His daughter, Goldie Sussman, 100, now living in Florida, remembers walking in the procession when it was dedicated. “I was very happy to hear about the Torah being restored,” she said.

Her nephew, Stephen Kossman, Samuel’s grandson, was the first graduate of Yavneh to be ordained a rabbi.

But it was a non-family member who brought the saga of the Torah scroll into the next generation. Three weeks ago, David Gellis, 13, chanted from the Torah for his bar mitzvah at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck. David’s father, Jonathan Gellis, works in an office next to Mr. Schranz and fell into the rededication project’s orbit.

The Gellis family has its own connection to Torah scrolls; Jonathan’s great uncle had written books on the proper ways of leining — reading from the Torah — and Jonathan’s father, Harold Gellis, is a stickler for correct reading. Jonathan Gellis had thought to celebrate David’s bar mitzvah by commissioning a new sefer Torah, but his synagogue and those nearby all were well stocked with scrolls.

So when he heard that the last public minyan in Paterson needed its Torah repaired, he discussed the idea of contributing with David. “He was really interested,” Jonathan Gellis recalled.

Jonathan and David went out to Fair Lawn, where the Torah was being repaired. Some of the repairs were involved replacing the wooden spindles, the atzei hayim — the old ones were sent to Rabbi Kossman. And some involved re-inking the faded or chipped lettering.

“They needed people to fix it up,” David, a seventh-grader at Yeshivat Noam, said. “So why not add an extra sefer Torah in the world?”

The sofer — the scribe repairing the Torah — brought David into the process.

“He wanted me to help write one of the last letters,” David said. “After he wrote it down, he asked if it was clear enough. I said, ‘That’s fine.’”

David’s grandfather also inspected the Torah. It passed his tougher standards.

Having helped pay for the repairs, the Gellis family borrowed the Torah for the bar mitzvah. “It was a very nice read,” David said. “I liked that it was old.”

Jerry Schranz likes that the rededication project has grown into something bigger, a full synagogue refresh. With more than enough money raised to refurbish the Torah scrolls, Mr. Schranz was able to buy new chairs, prayer books, and talleisim, and even to commission a new ner tamid.

And he likes that he has solved so many mysteries. He even learned about the founder of the minyan, a Reverend Joseph Fooks. (About that improbable title and odd last name — the title was an early-20th-century convention. Today, the Rev. Fooks would be known as Rabbi Joseph Fuchs.)

“He found a need back in the late ‘70s, when Yavneh was heading out, to start a minyan for the Russians who were moving into the building,” Mr. Schranz said. “It was his vision for the synagogue that came to fruition.”

Now, with next Sunday’s dedication celebration, it’s Mr. Schranz’ dream that is coming to fruition. “It all comes together at this event,” he said. “We’ll dance, we’ll have a mincha service.” There will be speeches.

“It is a celebration not just of bringing these Torahs up to their halachic standards, but of reconnecting these families,” Mr. Schranz said. “As long as Jewish life is alive in Paterson, these two Torahs are shining bright.”

Rededication of Torah scrolls

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