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Treasures in the Dust


By Heshy Friedman

Over the past several months, my wife Linda and I volunteered to clean out the Young Israel Beth El shul office and the seforim in the bais midrash, and respectfully remove the shaimos (old unusable seforim).  The shul is more than 100-years old and, when we began this endeavor, was overwhelmed with a huge amount of old, musty seforim.  

We soon learned that the problem was exacerbated by a disturbed individual who has the habit of taking seforim from other shuls in Brooklyn – and many in Long Island and Manhattan – and bringing them to our shul – and vice versa. Numerous seforim were stolen from the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.  We even found seforim that had belonged to children, e.g., an ArtScroll Children’s Megillah. Several of the old seforim had their owners’ names in them and we found it surprising that no one in the shul had ever thought to partake in the great mitzvah of hashovas aveidah. In any case, we decided to do our best and try to return the stolen seforim, with our own time and money. It costs about $3.50 to send one sefer through the regular mail; one can imagine how much we spent on postage. 

One siddur that was hidden among the shaimos had a name inscribed in gold. It was an expensive siddur and we were able to locate the owner.  This was a personal siddur and meaningful to her. She did not know how the siddur ended up in our shul but was thrilled to get it back after many years. 

A woman was happy to get back a sefer that belonged to her husband, who had passed away while the stolen sefer was in our shul. 

We still do not know why the shul had about 30 copies of an esoteric sefer about Rabbi Soloveitchik, Kavod HaRav.  One old Hertz Chumash was donated to the shul by Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky and his wife.

One Hirsch Chumash had a name and address in it. It was an address in Washington Heights and the name of the owner was Breuer.  The person was no longer at that address and was probably not alive. He was likely a grandson of the renowned Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. 

One person came to pick up a machzor that had belonged to his grandfather who davened at our shul. He was excited to receive his machzor since he had been close to his grandfather and actually used to bring him to shul when he needed help. 

There were many stolen slichos in the shul. One belonged to a prominent rabbi in Brooklyn. His daughter was thrilled to be getting back his personal slichos; sadly, the rav was no longer alive. Another slichos belonged to the stepmother of our own mechutan, also since niftar; he was very happy to have this memento. 

Touro College was happy to get back two old scholarly textbooks that were hidden among our seforim – Thank you Carmela for helping with this.  

A chumash that was given to a child in fifth grade was among the shaimos.  The name was unusual so we were able to locate the owner. He is a very successful businessperson and was very happy to see once again the chumash that he had used approximately 30-40 years earlier when he went to a day school in Brooklyn.  

One ArtScroll Gemara had a phone number in it but no name. I called and found out that the owner was waiting for 15 years to get back his gemara. He learned from it on a regular basis and hid it every night in Munkatch, a shul that is a few blocks away. One day, he was surprised to find it missing — a goniff had stolen it and brought it to our shul. He told us that he never gave up and always expected to get a phone call one day about his gemara.  It took 15 years but he finally got the call. 

One expensive Hirsch Chumash had a label indicating that it was donated by the “goniff” and his wife to the shul. The goniff had not done his homework and there was a seal in the sefer that indicated that it was from the “Library of Michael P...” Luckily the family name was not a common one and we found Michael P. in Florida. He remembered that the Chumash was taken from him several years ago when he lived in Boro Park. He was kind enough to donate it to the shul (so we saved ourselves the postage on that one).  It takes chutzpah to steal a chumash and then have the shul place a sticker label in it indicating that it was a donation from the thief.  How many aveiros is that?  

We found 15 siddurim (Hyman siddurim) that clearly indicated that they were the property of Torah Umesorah and should not have been removed from the premises. We called Torah Umesorah and they said that they did not need the siddurim anymore and that the shul could keep them. Thank you Torah Umesorah. 

Buried in a closet in the back coat room, we found some old bima covers. One had the name of the father of a current member of the shul. It had been donated in memory of his parents. The son said he would keep the bima cover to remember his parents and grandparents.

The strangest object found among the old seforim was an old bottle of vodka. It had been opened and the hid behind several rows of seforim. It was probably hidden behind the seforim for more than 20 years.  We also found a bottle of whiskey hidden in a closet behind some old bima covers.  Apparently, even decades ago, people felt the need to hide whiskey for the kiddush club.

This same closet also housed some of the minutes of the shul going back to early 1935. Some items of interest:

  • Back then, members of the shul referred to each other as “Brothers.”  The shul held an annual bazaar. Brother H. Schiller “promised to supply all the suspenders we can sell.” Brother J. Tartikov “promised to help in his line of Coal.”
  • In 1937, they sold raffle tickets and the prize was a trip to Havana.
  • In May of 1937, Rabbi Israel Schorr was “elected” for a term of two years at a salary of $1800 per annum.
  • Cantor Maurice (Moshe) Erstling had his salary increased to $2400 per annum.  Cantor Erstling left Beth El for a different position and died in February 1960 at the age of 61. At his death, he was cantor at Cong. Mount Sinai Anshe Emeth. He was famous for being the chazzan at the memorial ceremony after the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. 
  • The minutes of July 1943 discuss the salary of Cantor B. Schiffman. Apparently, the shul found a different cantor.
  • On January 3, 1949, the renowned cantor, Berele Chagy, was given a 3-year contract for $8500 per year, and the choir leader, Ben Friedman, was also given a contract.
  • On September 13, 1954, the contract for cantor Moshe Koussevitzky was renewed for 3 years for $16,000 per annum.   

We are still engaged in this tremendous zchus of cleaning up the bais midrash and the office and trying to return stolen seforim to their owners.  Who knows what other treasures we will find? 

Tue, April 16 2024 8 Nisan 5784