The Mystery Of The Missing Stained Glass Windows
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The Mystery Of The Missing Stained Glass Windows

They once adorned a synagogue in the heart of coal country. How they ended up in West Hempstead is raising troubling questions.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Gazing out over the congregation assembled in the dark wooden pews to celebrate his bar mitzvah in the summer of 1950, Melvyn Freid’s eyes were drawn to the two dozen spectacular stained glass windows that filled every wall of his synagogue, Beth Israel, an Orthodox congregation in the Pennsylvania coal mining town of Mahanoy City. Little could Freid have known that six decades later, those windows would become an obsession for him after they vanished and ended up adorning the walls of Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park, an Orthodox synagogue on Long Island’s South Shore.

While the synagogue ceased functioning two decades ago, Freid is seeking the return of the windows, which feature colorful images of Tablets of the Law, menorahs, and Lions of Judah. The windows — or their cash equivalent — are required in order to care for the graves of Freid’s parents and other members of Beth Israel who are buried in the Sons of Jacob Cemetery, located 10 miles away in the neighboring village of Hometown. But ever since the windows disappeared in 2010, Freid said that he has gone through a “traumatic, very frustrating experience” in trying to regain them.

An hour north of Hershey, Mahanoy City was settled by English, Welsh, Irish and German immigrants in the mid-19th century; it joined a cluster of similar towns like Shamokin and Shenandoah that grew up in northern Schuylkill County around the booming anthracite coal mining industry. At the turn of the 20th century, these burgeoning communities drew Jewish merchants and tradesmen, who launched businesses to provide food, clothing, furniture, and other necessities to the miners, most of whom were Irish; the violent clashes between the “Molly Maguires” and the mine owners are a staple of American folklore and popular culture.

By the early 1920s, a number of these towns boasted beautiful brick synagogues with mahogany woodwork and ornate ceilings; the 45 Jewish families in Mahanoy City — whose Jewish population, according to historian Lee Shai Weissbach in his book, “Jews in Small-Town America,” peaked at about 250 in 1918 — collected $45,000 to build Beth Israel in 1923. (A twin of the synagogue, built in the same year by the same builder, still stands in Lehighton, half an hour north of Allentown.)

Arnold Oberson, who grew up a few blocks from Beth Israel, lives now in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. His parents, who owned a children’s clothing store, donated one of the stained glass windows; his grandfather, Charles Oberson, who was a wholesale beef producer, is the oldest person buried in the congregation’s cemetery. “The older generation kept the synagogue very neat and clean,” Oberson recalled. “The rugs were shampooed and the benches were varnished.”

The town’s economic prospects were encouraging; an appliance store owner named John Walson, whose television sets were not selling because of poor reception caused by the mountains, hit in 1948 on the idea of installing an antenna on top of a nearby peak, which ultimately made Mahanoy City the birthplace of cable TV. But the precipitous decline of the mining industry over the postwar decades left the region in a severe economic slump, and the sons and daughters of the town’s Jewish residents, like their non-Jewish counterparts, almost all departed for better educational and economic opportunities elsewhere. (The entire town has a total of only four thousand residents today, barely a quarter of its pre-WWI population.)

By the late 1980s, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the once proud Beth Israel Congregation was fading out, the fewer than two dozen elderly Jews in the town barely able to sustain a daily minyan, even with help from surrounding Jewish communities. While the building’s paint was peeling and the plaster crumbling, the reporter, Russell E. Eshleman, Jr., marveled that the “synagogue retains much of its former majesty. Colorful stained glass windows, donated by families and businesses during the town’s glory years, are in perfect condition…” Rumor had it that the round window that hung over the synagogue’s entrance, and which featured a Star of David, had been manufactured by famous glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany and donated by the local high school’s alumni association.

Freid, whose parents owned a furniture store, had left the town for good in the mid-1950s, at around the time that Beth Israel switched to the Conservative movement. Freid went on to Penn State and the Peirce School of Business before joining the army and then becoming an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. Now retired after almost four decades working for the IRS, Freid, who lives near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, has made the return of the windows into a personal crusade.

Edna Janowitch is the sole remaining Jewish resident of Mahanoy City; her family owned a shirt-making factory that employed many of the town’s residents. Janowitch, who lives just a few doors down from the shuttered synagogue, told The Jewish Week that she saw a moving company taking them down. But Janowitch, who challenged the movers, was informed that they had permission to remove them.

“It was such a shock when they were taken,” said Freid, who did not learn of their disappearance until he heard about it nine months later.

The idea that the windows would be sold off was not unlikely, though, given that the Beth Israel Congregation was just then in the process of disposing of its assets and looking for a way to maintain the cemetery. A cousin of Freid’s, who visited the cemetery in 2008, “called me crying,” he recalled, “saying that the grass is too high.” Fried paid out of pocket for the grass to be mowed.

At around the same time, Eitz Chayim, the Long Island congregation, was building a new sanctuary to accommodate its growing membership, swelled by the Modern Orthodox population moving to the border of West Hempstead and Franklin Square. They had sent representatives, including one of their officers, Philip Brill, to Mahanoy City in 2006, where they were given a key to the sanctuary by the congregation’s long-time attorney, Robert N. Bohorad, and permission to take pews, prayer books and other items. (The Torah scrolls had already been sold off to other congregations.) But there is no record of anyone connected to Beth Israel giving permission to take the stained glass windows.

However they obtained the windows, Eitz Chayim installed just eight of them (representing fewer than half of the total) in August of 2012, just in time for High Holy Day Services. That the windows came from Mahanoy City is evident from photos that accompanied a celebratory article about the new sanctuary by the congregation’s then-president, Kenneth J. Glassman, that ran that September in a local paper, the West Hempstead Jewish Times.

By that time, the loss of the windows was already the focus of a police investigation. In February of 2010, a month after the windows were taken, Harrisburg attorney Edmund “Tad” Berger, whose uncle, Maurice Vogel, had been Beth Israel’s treasurer, reported them as stolen to the Schuylkill County District Attorney and to the Mahanoy City Police Department. Officer John Powis, who took the report and interviewed officers of Eitz Chayim, told The Jewish Week only that the case is “still an active criminal investigation” and that “details will be forthcoming when an arrest is made.”

Freid also tried to pursue the matter with officials of Eitz Chayim officials, but “every time we tried to talk to them, they stonewalled us.”

That such decorative windows would be taken from an inactive congregation is “not surprising at all,” to Sam Gruber, an architectural historian and cultural heritage consultant who heads the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, an organization that seeks to preserve Jewish sites worldwide. “American congregations have plundered underused and closed synagogues in North Africa,” he said. “They can be quite acquisitive and aggressive.” But he pointed out that it “happens less frequently these days, because people are more sensitive to the artistic value of items, rather than thinking that synagogues are just sitting there” and their assets are up for grabs.

When the windows were installed in 2012, little was said publicly about how they were acquired. Rabbi Art Vernon of Congregation Shaaray Shalom, a Conservative synagogue that is just around the corner from Eitz Chayim (and which is fronted by 30-foot high Belgian stained glass windows that are the envy of the neighborhood), recalled that all that he had heard was that Eitz Chayim’s windows “came from a synagogue in Pennsylvania that was going out of business.”

Correspondence obtained by The Jewish Week shows a volley of letters back and forth over the last five years between Thomas Campion, Jr., the attorney for Beth Israel (Bohorad passed away from cancer last June), who is based in nearby Pottsville, and Glassman, the former president of Eitz Chayim, who practices law in Manhattan. Representatives for the congregation have insisted that they had permission to take the windows but have never supplied the name of the person who purportedly gave them this authorization, or furnished any receipt or other written documentation of the transfer of ownership. In addition, Glassman has contended that Beth Israel “has ceased being a functioning entity for many years” and that no one has legal standing to demand the return of the windows.

Freid emphatically disagrees. In order to recover funds that had been deposited over the years in area banks, Beth Israel reorganized itself two years ago, with Freid elected (by the few descendants of the founding families who could be found) as president. “A corporation cannot die,” Freid insisted. “We aren’t defunct. We still have a cemetery that we need to take care of.” Freid has since paid a Philadelphia contractor $35,000 to take ownership of the building, which has been assessed real estate taxes since it stopped functioning as a religious organization. He also noted that the value of the building was significantly reduced when the windows were removed.

The current value of the windows is also an issue. Alyssa Loney, a Pennsylvania appraiser recently hired by Freid, has, using photographs of all of the windows, assessed their fair market value at $192,500; she found no evidence, however, that any of the windows were made by Tiffany. Then again, Eitz Chayim may have spent a considerable amount of money in repurposing them; Freid recalled a telephone conversation with Glassman in 2011, in which Glassman calculated that transporting, releading and installing them would cost Eitz Chayim in excess of $150,000.

Leonard Berman chairs the cemetery committee of the Harrisburg Jewish Foundation, which was requested a decade ago to take over the responsibility for five Jewish cemeteries in the anthracite coal mining region. “We don’t have the funds to provide for perpetual care,” he lamented. “We need endowment monies from each of these former congregations.”

In order to assume responsibility for the Sons of Jacob Cemetery, the foundation has demanded a $150,000 endowment, to cover annual costs of several thousand dollars that include grass cutting, snow removal, liability insurance, and the adjustment of slanting gravestones. The foundation recently retained its own attorney to seek compensation for the windows, although there is a question about whether or not too much time has passed for the relevant statutes of limitation to apply. If so, the Beth Din of America, the Orthodox Jewish court that adjudicates matters of Jewish law, could be asked to step in; the Talmud is replete with regulations about how lost, stolen, misappropriated, and abandoned objects should be handled.

Eitz Chayim’s part-time rabbi, Efrem Schwalb, told The Jewish Week only that the windows came “a long time ago” from a congregation in Pennsylvania and that he “highly doubts” that they were taken without permission. Neither Brill nor Glassman consented to an interview; when asked to help shed light on the situation, Glassman sent a terse email, “Nothing to clarify.”

But Natan Hecht, a West Hempstead tax attorney who became Eitz Chayim’s president last summer, was eager to discuss the situation, and he suggested that his congregation did a mitzvah in “rescuing” the windows. While he conceded that he has no direct knowledge of the case, Hecht noted that he is “very confident that there is no injustice.” From what he had been told, “The synagogue building was rotting; it had standing water. The windows were going to be lost. The windows were taken only when the officers of Eitz Chayim were convinced that it was an abandoned building and that everyone who had a tangential connection to the congregation had expressed no interest in it. There were conversations at the time with local authorities, who agreed that the building was abandoned.”

The windows that were not used by Eitz Chayim were not restored, but are, Hecht divulged, in the sanctuary’s basement, where, he speculated, they are “probably in better condition than they would have been if they had been left behind” in the dilapidated synagogue in Mahanoy City.

Furthermore, Hecht is indignant about the claim that his congregation owes money for the windows. The idea, he said, that “people who weren’t there to come forward now and insinuate that we did something wrong — that there are real needs now and that there was a resource at the time that could be monetized — is ridiculous. It was no one’s intention to take something that other people had a claim on, either legally or ethically. And nothing was done as a secret.”

While Hecht conceded that it may be “tragic that resources weren’t left for perpetual care of their cemetery,” he insisted that “the windows wouldn’t necessarily have been a panacea.” Nevertheless, he pointed out that the windows have given the two congregations a “shared history and legacy,” and he offered to facilitate a meeting of leaders of both synagogues to discuss the matter.

For his part, Melvyn Freid had some choice words for the leaders of Eitz Chayim. He called them “opportunists who took advantage of our congregation. They saw something that was ripe for the taking. It’s true that our synagogue was inactive at the time; I hadn’t even been in the building for 20 or 30 years. Nevertheless, I feel that our shul was a victim.”

But however the situation is ultimately resolved, Freid, who has purchased his own plot in the Sons of Jacob Cemetery, just wants to know that the graves will be taken care of. If he could only procure the funds for the cemetery, he said, “I would feel that all of my efforts have not been in vain.”

Ted Merwin, who teaches religion at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., writes about culture for the paper. His website is tedmerwin.com.

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