In the next couple of weeks, an aron kodesh or holy ark, will be transferred from a Reform temple in North Carolina to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Ill. The ark that graced the pulpit of Temple Beth El in Rocky Mount, N.C., for 70 years will continue to house Torah scrolls and will serve the 61-year-old recently relocated Skokie Central Congregation. The transfer is thanks to Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project.
“JCLP was happy to introduce the Skokie congregation to the Rocky Mount, N.C. congregation in order to ensure the transfer of the holy ark,” Noah Levine, JCLP’s senior vice president, told the AJT. “The spirit of Temple Beth El will live on in the sacred halls of the Skokie Central Congregation.”
JCLP was launched a few years ago to assist small Jewish communities in preparing for whatever future awaits them, and to ensure that their legacies reflect the aspects of Jewish life that were important to them.
Nationwide, JCLP has worked with more than 40 communities, most of which are still active. Through their legacy plans, these congregations have established endowments for perpetual care of their cemeteries, Holocaust education and scholarships for young people. As some small congregations around the country have closed their doors, JCLP has assisted them in finding homes for their religious items. That’s what it did in this case.
The last time Temple Beth El held high holiday services was in 2016. In the 17 years that Barry Chesis has lived in the small town and been a member of the synagogue, only rabbinic students have served the congregation, which has now dwindled to just him and one other member. With the synagogue’s closing came decisions about everything inside the building, which was erected in 1949.
“Even though we were a small congregation, we were a symbolic representation of Judaism in Rocky Mount,” Chesis said. “It was important for me to carry on the legacy of those folks who started this congregation.”
About 1 ½ years ago, JCLP’s Levine met with Chesis and Gail Stafford in Rocky Mount to help them discuss their plans for Temple Beth El. In May, Levine put Chesis in touch with Ira Kahn, the gabbai at Skokie Central Congregation in that Chicago suburb. Skokie Central had just moved to a new location and needed an aron kodesh to house its six Torah scrolls.
The ark is expected to be installed in Skokie Central by Rosh Hashanah. Moving such a large piece isn’t easy. In fact, it had to be taken apart to be transported. “My fear was that it would be too big for movers,” Chesis said. “It’s a beautiful traditional ark. It was important to me that we got people who had respect for the ark and understood the importance of the structure. We found people who were able to do that.”
According to Kahn, “working with the people in North Carolina has been a wonderful experience. I wanted to help them carry on their legacy and help my shul. What I particularly liked about Barry is that he is motivated by the spirituality of the ark and wants it to continue its legacy. He wants to make sure the cabinet that has housed Sefer Torahs is not just a museum piece but continues to be used.”
At its largest, Skokie Central had more than 500 member-families, many of whom included Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Michael Gottesman told the AJT. With aging members and changing demographics in its neighborhood, the synagogue’s membership declined to about 45 families, encouraging the congregation to move into a more Jewish area six months ago.
Kahn said he has invited Chesis – who has a brother in the Chicago area – to address Skokie Central “and memorialize the history of the ark.” For his part, Chesis said he wants “to see our link in the chain continue and grow in the vibrancy of Judaism.”