A scholar, he wasn’t. Nevertheless, Henry Ford may have been onto something, when 101 years ago, he proclaimed, “History is bunk.” Mr. Ford’s imbecilic proclamation immediately came to mind, as a result of an early Monday morning phone call that I received. Joel Glassman, a former congregant and a forever friend, called me at 8 a.m., to tell me that he had made the front cover of the Metro West Jewish News. The reason for Joel’s moment in fame is that he had come across menorahs, mezuzahs, plaques, as well as the very sign itself, of an Orthodox Congregation in Plainfield, New Jersey that had long closed its doors and was now in the process of being dismantled and demolished. Joel immediately contacted the local Jewish Historical Society, correctly thinking that the director of the museum would be only too happy to receive these artifacts.
History is bunk, if those who read the article about Joel Glassman’s article fail to consider that behind those plaques and menorahs, there was a congregation with its problems, challenges, and even crises. Even in its heyday, the leadership of United Orthodox Congregation of Plainfield, New Jersey, no different than most other congregations, went through times when the future looked bleak. Last Thursday evening, Rebbetzin Zell and her husband went across the street to a neighbor’s home, where the two couples watched the movie Norman. Part of the plot showed that unless a flagship synagogue in Manhattan could immediately come up with an infusion of 14 million dollars, it would have to close its doors. This movie aside, the plaques serve as a reminder that a congregation can only exist when there are those who refuse to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to deal with problems, challenges, and even crises. In most cases, a plaque goes up in return for their stepping up.
History is bunk, if those who read the article about Joel Glassman’s discovery fail to realize that plaques tell only part of the story, a small part. More often than not, plaques tell us about generous financial contributions and endowments that are indispensable to the existence and well-being of the congregations. But the existence and well-being of a congregation are very much dependent on the time, effort, and energy of everyday people making everyday sacrifices that the overwhelming majority of congregants typically give little, if any, thought to. Daily minyan does not happen by itself, just as the Kiddush that people wait in line for every Shabbat does not prepare itself. The very same holds true as far as the vast variety of programs and dinners offered by synagogues. Chances are that no different than the vast majority of congregations, the Plainfield synagogue was more in the habit of affixing plaques than in presenting them.
History is bunk, if those who read the article about Joel Glassman’s discovery fail to learn that as important and necessary as preserving the past is, it’s even more important to plan for the future. Up until the decade of the ‘60’s, Plainfield, New Jersey boasted an active and thriving Jewish community. But active and thriving Jewish communities have life-spans all their own. There are precious few cities in this country that can lay claim to a Jewish neighborhood that has been vibrant for half a century. No different than those who constitute them, Jewish communities grow and decline. Ashrei ha-Ish; fortunate is he who is aware of this reality. Joel Glassman was concerned about plaques from the past and rightfully so. Shouldn’t we be concerned about plaques for the future?
Joel Glassman received well-deserved front page coverage in the Metro West Jewish News. The United Orthodox Congregation of Plainfield, New Jersey, received its place in perpetuity. Let us all hope we will learn that a congregation without problems, challenges, and crises belongs in Fantasyland. Plaques were invented in no small part as a response to people who refuse to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear and step up to those problems, challenges, and crises. Let us all hope we will learn that there is a core of congregants deserving of plaques for dedicating their time, effort, and energy. Let us hope we will all learn this: as meaningful and necessary as plaques are to serve as reminders of the past, we should all be concerned about plaques of the future. If we fail to learn these lessons, then we will have proven Henry Ford right after all: history is bunk.