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But even with the sale, Witek believes, the Jewish community’s presence in Massena will be preserved. “My feeling is, as long as the building is there, it is a representation of the Jewish community,” she said.
The board also discharged the synagogue’s assets. The three Torah scrolls were donated to synagogues around the region. Silver trays and tea sets were returned to the families they originally belonged to. The metal letters that spelled out “Adath Israel Synagogue” were placed in a box in Levine’s basement. The synagogue in nearby Potsdam, Congregation Beth El, hung Adath Israel’s memorial board in its main hall, promising to light up the bulbs on the appropriate yahrzeits. A few of Adath Israel’s members who were well enough to make the 30-minute drive to Potsdam began attending Friday night services there.
The dissolution of Adath Israel is a sore point among some remaining Jews in Massena. I met with Doris Robinson, a 78-year-old retiree, and Michael Slavin, a local real estate agent, at the library where, months before, members of the Jewish community voted to turn over the synagogue building to the Chamber of Commerce.
Slavin is the great-grandson of Louis Slavin, one of the first Jews in Massena. The elder Slavin made a living selling clothing and boots to workers at the Aluminum Company of America, which is still one of the largest employers in town. (Local Jews and even the mayor are quick to mention that ALCOA didn’t hire Jews during its early years in Massena.) When the blood libel rumor spread through Massena, Michael Slavin’s father, then a teenager, kept a 24-hour vigil at Adath Israel; he later went on to found the first B’nai B’rith chapter in town. A barrel-chested man with a heavy gold ring on his finger and a Masonic pin fastened into the buttonhole of his jacket, Slavin fumed over the synagogue sale, which he said was executed without sufficient input from the broader Jewish community.
He contends that the board “gave, pilfered, or stole the contents of the Jewish community.” The Torah scrolls, including one that his great-grandfather carried from Russia, “were given away with no transparency…They were going to bury all the yarmulkes,” he said. “It’s something that was done in the olden days. But today there are Jewish congregations that need that.”
Witek and Levine counter that they consulted with rabbis and members of the local community before dissolving Adath Israel’s property. Some dilapidated tallitot and moldy prayer books were buried, they concede, unusable by another congregation. “We held on as long as we could, and we put the best care we could into the things the community had to deal with, and we moved on,” Witek said.
But Slavin is adamant. “There’s a right and there’s a wrong,” he said. “And this is a wrong.”