December 14, 2006

Restored Torah returns to Temple Brith Sholom


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Rabbi Teitelbaum speaks about the restored Torah after delivering it to Temple Brith Sholom Tuesday, as temple Vice President George Ring and President Mark Suben look on.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The local Jewish community is celebrating the return of its Torah, which was restored with insurance settlement funds donated by the family of a local man whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
The Torah will replace a meticulously handwritten Torah scroll that has served the Temple Brith Sholom on Madison Street _for about 40 years. The restoration funds were provided through the parents of congregation member George Ring, both of whom had survived the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia.
Ring’s parents were witnesses to one of the most violent upheavals in the history of Jewish people and the 20th Century. Three other members of Ring’s family, and other Torahs, were not so fortunate.
The Czech Torah was retired Tuesday, but will stay in the Temple as a connection to those who were lost in the Holocaust.
“This Torah has served the congregation well. It’s been a wonderful bridge between this generation and the last generation,” said Michael Weinstein of Binghamton, the Temple High Holiday service leader.
Meanwhile, another Torah scroll from the beginnings of the Cortland Temple in the late 1920s has been restored and returned to the Temple Brith Sholom.
“Concurrently, as it were, this Torah scroll which had been damaged, apparently during the move from the old synagogue building, was found,” in a closet in the home of a Cortland family, Ring said. “Money was needed (for restoration), and fortunately, we had the money.”
When the congregation took up residence in the newly-constructed Temple Brith Sholom in 1969, the Torah scroll from the original temple at the corner of Port Watson and Church streets was deemed too damaged to be used in religious services. It was replaced by one that had been used in Czechoslovakia before World War II.
After sitting in a Cortland resident’s closet for 40 years, the original Torah scroll has been restored, and the Czech Torah will be the centerpiece of a teaching exhibit in the Synagogue.
Traditionally, retired Torahs are buried as if they were people. Weinstein explained that Torahs are regarded as members of the Temple congregation. After consulting with numerous rabbis, Weinstein said it would be appropriate if the Czech Torah was used for educational purposes and handled by students.
“It’s special that everything came together,” Ring said. “It’s very significant that the money is being used to promote Jewish thought and Jewish values, that Hitler tried to destroy.”
Hitler’s holocaust claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million Jews as well as millions of gypsies, Poles, Russians, Slavs and others before and during World War II.
The restoration was done by Rabbi Saul Teitelbaum, of Monsey in Rockland County, and was financed through insurance payments that have only recently been awarded. Many of the ordinarily essential death certificates had been lost or destroyed during the war and were “missing” during the subsequent Communist regime.
In 1998, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims was established to locate the heirs to insurance policies of victims, and the money has since been distributed among survivors, including the Rings.
About 15 members of the congregation gathered Tuesday to exchange stories about the synagogue, to listen and question Weinstein and Teitelbaum on the tradition and meaning bound up within the Torah scrolls, and to celebrate the passing of one member of the congregation and the return of another.
“A lot of people have had their kids Bar Mitzvahed from this Torah,” the Czech Torah, said Jo Schaffer, a temple trustee.
The Czech Torah was used to Bar Mitzvah the son of Len Cohen of Homer, and to Bat Mitzvah his daughter. A former president of the congregation and the current archivist, Cohen said the original Temple Brith Sholom was formed by Daniel Rosen, Abraham Louis, and Barney Kaplan in 1929. Meetings were held in the YMCA and various office buildings until a large Victorian home at Port Watson and Church streets was purchased for use as a synagogue. A gas station now sits on the site.
Current congregation president Mark Suben said that although neither he nor his two sons lived in Cortland when they had their Bar Mitzvahs at the age of 13, he did have fond memories of the original temple.
Despite it’s huge kitchen, the house had a very small sanctuary, Suben said, and more space was needed.
“It was a beautiful old building, wonderful old oak,” Suben said Wednesday. “Back in those days, it was the center of the Jewish community. For many people, it was the center of their lives. There was always cooking going on. It was a very pleasant place to be.”
Cohen said that Cortland’s Temple Brith Sholom is the only synagogue in the county.
“It’s an amazing congregation, because they’ve survived,” Weinstein said.



Creation, restoration of Torahs a lengthy and difficult process

Three Torahs rest in the Ark at the front of the Temple Brith Sholom’s main room, upon which is written the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.
The scrolls are bound with a sash, covered with a mantle and breastplate and topped by two silver crowns at their uppermost handles.
Torah means “law” in Hebrew, while the scrolls themselves are called the Sefer Torah. A highly trained scribe such as Rabbi Saul Teitelbaum, of Rockland County, meticulously copies each scroll from another.
Because each Torah is handwritten and does not bear the name of the scribe who wrote it or any artwork, it can be difficult to identify the exact point of origin.
Each letter must be pronounced aloud before it is written in ink in order to make certain of its accuracy. Prayers must be said and rituals followed. Teitelbaum said it could easily take longer than seven months to complete the process, depending on the “competence of your work.”
The first five books of the Jewish (and Christian) holy texts are inscribed in ink on the sheets according to strict tradition and proscriptions in the Torah itself, then sown together and wrapped around arm-length wooden rollers, called the Trees of Life, or Ahtzey Chayim.
Teitelbaum said that restoring the “high-quality” Cortland Torah — which Weinstein estimated is at least 100 years old— involved scraping off the ink that had started to come loose from the parchment, and meticulously reproducing the original style of the calligraphy.
Although Teitelbaum said he did not work on the Cortland Torah straight through the year he had it in his possession, Michael Weinstein, of Binghamton, the Temple High Holiday service leader, estimated that it took about a month for the rabbi to complete the restoration work.
The years had taken their toll on the Czechoslovakian Torah scroll that the Cortland congregation had been using this Torah in recent years.
Weinstein said that wear and tear on the Czech Torah, especially in the most viewed sections used for the High Holidays, had rendered it unfit for use.
It had been reclaimed by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in 1963, along with more than a thousand others. These were Torahs the Nazis had stockpiled in a Czechoslovakian synagogue to serve as a “museum to an extinct race.” This cache was eventually released by the Czech government and transferred to the Westminster Synagogue in London. Many have since been redistributed to Jewish communities around the world.
The late Walter Grunfeld, of Marathon, was able to obtain the Temple Brith Sholom’s Czech Torah sometime in the late 1960s.
The original Trees of Life from the Cortland Torah scroll had hand carved ivory handles, but the flat part of the roller was broken.
Now that the Temple’s original Torah has been restored, the Temple plans to purchase a display case for the Czech Torah, and for the original rollers from the Cortland Torah and its mantle.




Riverside to appeal loss of Empire Zone

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The Empire Zone Development Board voted unanimously Wednesday to rescind Empire Zone benefits for the owner of Riverside Plaza.
Noting that the board had rescinded benefits before, Tom Brown, chairman of the board, said Buffalo-based Bella Vista Group had not provided sufficient proof of concrete investments in the Riverside Plaza.
“We’ve been trying to work with them for some time now, to verify their claims of investment they say they made into the property, in return for property tax benefits,” he said. “We haven’t been able to verify through them, through any document, that they fulfilled that part of the obligation.”
Brown said the board has not, for example, received any receipts.
The Bella Vista Group will appeal the Empire Zone Board’s decision, said Joe Cipolla, owner of Buffalo-based company that owns the plaza.
Cipolla said the company has received $75,000 to $80,000 in tax rebates from the state each of the last three years and has doubled or tripled that amount in investments to the site. That money has paid for minor maintenance items, including parking lot repair, roof repair and graffiti cleanup.
He said he just recently found out the company had not provided sufficient proof if its investment.
He said he was not responsible for that paperwork and didn’t know who was.
In any event, the company will make sure it prepares paperwork correctly when it appeals the decision, he said.
“Yeah, we’ll certainly do our best to provide the reporting with the format and the content the administrative board wanted to be completed,” he said. “Beyond that, I can’t do anything more than explain the history of the redevelopment.”
In the company’s original application for Empire Zone status, it said it would create two full-time jobs and invest $4.1 million in the property. The jobs would be a rental agent and a maintenance person.
Karen Niday, Empire Zone coordinator, said only one of the jobs had been created.
Cipolla said his firm had invested only $500,000 in the plaza, largely because P&C did not move locations within the plaza as it originally had planned.
The company was going to invest $1 million into a new building where Ames department store used to be, he said, but when P&C went bankrupt several years ago and decided not to move, that did not make sense.
“We’re not going to knock down the building and find out a day later someone wants to use it,” he said.
He said the company has not invested money into other parts of the plaza for the same reason: It doesn’t know if new tenants will want to use the current buildings or put in their own buildings.
Cipolla said it is disappointing the board voted to rescind its benefits. This is the first time any of his firm’s property has lost Empire Zone status, he said.
He said the company owns more than a million square feet of property in various states.
The Riverside Plaza is roughly 185,000 square feet, he said.
Brown said the board’s decision comes at a time when Empire Zone beneficiaries and boards are being placed under more and more scrutiny.
“We need to make sure they’re holding up their end of the obligation,” he said.
The state need to approve rescinding Bella Vista’s benefits before it officially loses them.



Two thefts investigated downtown

Staff Reporter

City Police are investigating recent thefts from two Main Street businesses.
Lt. Paul Sandy of the City Police said his department began an investigation this morning into an overnight break-in at the Community Restaurant on 10 Main St.
The restaurant break-in comes just five days after a reported theft at Mullen’s Office Outfitters on 28 Main St. City police did not release information about that crime or notify the news media until this morning.
“A small amount of criminal mischief was done,” Sandy said of  the restaurant break-in.
He would not elaborate on what “criminal mischief” occurred only stating, “They damaged stuff.”
Sandy added that an undetermined amount of money was also taken from the restaurant, but he would not release any further information about the crimes, citing it as a “pending investigation.”
On Saturday afternoon at Mullen’s Office Outfitters, money was stolen from a safe while the owner, Fritz Mullen, was in the store.
When asked about the crime this morning, Sandy said his department did not release information about the theft because the case is a pending investigation.
He said an undisclosed amount of money was taken from the office area of the business by “an unknown person or persons” at around 3:30 p.m. He declined to say how much money was taken or where exactly the money was taken from.
The store has been in business for 92 years, she added.
Fritz Mullen declined an interview with the Cortland Standard this morning.



State to change light

Staff Reporter

The state Department of Transportation has agreed to install a full pedestrian crossing phase at the downtown intersection where a woman was killed in an accident last month, responding to concerns brought up by the city last April.
The intersection of Central Avenue and Church Street will feature an exclusive pedestrian crossing phase, meaning all vehicular traffic will stop while pedestrians cross.
The change will occur in the next two weeks, according to the state.
“We’ve done a pretty thorough analysis of that intersection, we’ve looked at timing and phasing, traffic counts, pedestrian counts, accident history, and we’ve determined that we will add an exclusive pedestrian phase,” said DOT public relations officer Tony Ilacqua. “It should provide a better opportunity for pedestrians to cross Church Street and Central Ave.,” he said.
The DOT’s decision comes in response to a request from the city in April that such a change be considered.
Interest in the city’s request was rekindled after the November accident in which two women were hit by a car while crossing Church Street.
One of the women, Lyn Briggs, 55, of Cortland, was in critical condition for two weeks before dying, while her friend Melody Benn received minor injuries.
The driver of the car, off-duty city police officer Jeffrey Stockton, was charged with second-degree vehicular assault, a felony, driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, and failure to exercise due care, a violation, before Briggs died. Since her death, District Attorney Dave Hartnett has refused to say whether more charges would be added.
“It’s about time,” Angie Wyatt, executive director of the traffic safety board, said of the DOT’s decision. “It’s unfortunate something tragic has to happen before they move, because this is a tragedy that could’ve happened to anybody, even sober.”
Stockton has since resigned from the police department.
The two women, who were walking west on Central Avenue, crossing Church Street on the south side of the road, had a walk light allowing them to cross, according to city police.
Meanwhile Stockton, who was driving west on Central Avenue and turned left onto Church Street, simultaneously had a green light, and hit the women in the crosswalk, police said.
The new signal will show red lights to all cars while the walk light is on.
Ilacqua said it was important to note that the problem with that accident was ultimately the fact that Stockton allegedly was driving while intoxicated. The recent accident had little impact on the DOT’s final decision, he said.