My Turn: A new year arrives and a temple dies

For the Monitor
Published: 9/23/2020 6:00:07 AM

Starting at sunset on Sept. 18, Jews around the world, and in New Hampshire, welcomed the Jewish New Year, 5781. Services were held that evening, and they were real even though they were virtual. Then came the news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, our esteemed Supreme Court justice and fellow Jew, had died. A light had been extinguished.

Every year at this time, I think back to my days growing up Jewish in Claremont. I was 9 years old when the Jews of Claremont bought an old school on Putnam Street, which my father had attended early in the 20th century, and made it into our synagogue. Before then, services had been held in the home of Mr. Blumberg, a kosher butcher (“shochet” in Yiddish). Yes, there were enough Jews to support such an enterprise, and Mr. Blumberg conducted Friday night services. I went there to Sunday School.

In 1948, Temple Meyer-David came into existence. My grandfather, Maurice Firestone, and my father, Frank Steinfield, were two of many who spearheaded this undertaking. The community named our temple for 2nd Lt. Meyer Satzow and Pfc. David Blumberg (Mr. Blumberg’s son), the two Claremont Jews who were killed in action serving our country in World War II.

The birth of Temple Meyer-David represented a Claremont milestone for at least two reasons. It was a living statement that the Jewish population was large enough, around 50 families, to support its own religious home. And it served as a symbolic message that, in the shadow of the Holocaust, this small, overwhelmingly Christian, New Hampshire community was a place where Jews could live, worship, and be safe.

We were blessed to have Michael Szenes, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, as our first rabbi. He was with us only a few years – by the time of my bar mitzvah in 1952 he had moved on to Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, and he later went to Temple Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, New York, where he served for 25 years. But to me, he will always be “my rabbi.” He was long retired when I called him in 1998 and asked him to officiate at my mother’s funeral. He immediately said yes, and the next day he came from Schenectady to Boston for the funeral and then to Claremont for her burial. The last time I saw him was at Temple Meyer-David Cemetery.

Several years after the temple on Putnam Street was established, my grandfather Firestone decided that we should have our own cemetery. Members of the congregation put up the funds to purchase land on North Street, and Temple Meyer David Cemetery, where all gravestones are the same size, was born. My grandparents and my parents are buried there.

Over the years, the Jewish population of Claremont kept shrinking, to the point where only a few families remained. Even so, Temple Meyer David survived, albeit on a much-reduced scale, with no rabbi. A man named Arnie Cover, married to Donna Diamond from Claremont and, like Mr. Blumberg, a learned layman, came from Massachusetts to officiate at monthly Friday night services.

Mr. Cover died earlier this year, and then, on Sept. 13, the small Temple Meyer-David congregation made the fateful decision to bring my boyhood temple to an end. I learned about this a few days later from Steve Borofsky, a Claremonter whose parents attended my bar mitzvah nearly 70 years ago.

What is there to say when a synagogue dies? What will become of the Memorial Scrolls, which include the names of my family members along with many others who, like my Firestone grandparents, were immigrants from Eastern Europe? And what of the cemetery where they are buried? Who will maintain it? I don’t have the answers, and I can’t think of words to comfort myself.

This is a time of national mourning. Justice Ginsburg is dead – so are George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. COVID-19 has taken over 200,000 lives. I do not compare the closing, I hesitate to use the word liquidation, of Temple Meyer David to these losses, but for me, and I’m sure many others, the loss of that eternal light on Putnam Street is an occasion of incalculable sadness.

(Joseph D. Steinfield is a lawyer who lives in Keene. He can be reached at joe@joesteinfield.com.)


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