Decades-Old Blood Libel Case Roils Town

Dwindling Jewish Community Still Haunted by 1928 Incident

naomi zeveloff

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published October 18, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
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In mid-October I went to the Massena Public Library to meet with Judy Witek and Lenore Levine, two of the three board members of Congregation Adath Israel, which donated $5,100 for the library’s month-long series. Levine, a nurse at Massena Memorial Hospital, is Vernick’s sister. Witek works as a teacher’s aide in the local high school; she is a relative newcomer, who moved to Massena in 1987. The third board member is Miriam Catapano, Harry Clopman’s daughter.

We walked through the library’s display on Jewish history, a kind of Judaica potpourri that included a candelabra from Adath Israel, and several short towers of Jewish books and DVDs: “On Being a Jewish Feminist” sat near “Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money” and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s memoirs. Before Jewish history month in Massena, Jewish books were almost never checked out, Fuehring told me, but now they were flying off the shelves. In the main room of the library were four boards featuring articles and photographs about Massena in the 1920s, information about the 1928 incident and about Vernick’s book, and a printed Wikipedia entry for the term “blood libel.”

“My feeling was, Shirley had written a book that is very relevant in today’s world,” Witek said, explaining the synagogue’s support for the series. “People can be swept up in emotions of hate. It is important that students read about this event.” Levine chimed in: “It’s a nice opportunity to educate people.”

As Levine and Witek back the library’s tribute to Massena’s Jewish history, they are simultaneously liquidating the local Jewish community’s assets. Since 1919, Congregation Adath Israel was housed in a red brick building, a former congregational church, on the corner of Church and West Orvis streets. But over the years, children of Jewish families moved away from Massena, and the congregation diminished. With no rabbi or regular Sabbath services, Adath Israel hired student rabbis from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Manhattan, to lead holiday prayers. Then in 2007, lightning struck the Emmanuel Congregational Church across the street, and Adath Israel temporarily hosted its Sunday services.

Six years ago, the Adath Israel board decided that maintaining the building without an active congregation wasn’t worth the cost, so it put up the synagogue for sale. Several promising prospective buyers fell through. Finally, the board sold the building to the Chamber of Commerce in July for a nominal fee of $1. “By that point in time, we literally had no congregation,” Levine said. Adath Israel isn’t the only North Country synagogue to have shut its doors recently; a handful of others have closed as well.

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