Our Sanctuary Then and Now
By Joseph Birnbaum
It was a Friday night in 1954 and I was returning home from my newly opened office on Lake Street in Monroe when I noticed the little frame house across the street from the then Monroe Post Office, now the Monroe Police Department (see attached photo). On the front lawn hung a small sign emblazoned with the words The Monroe Jewish Council House and uncertain as to what this meant I decided to find out. The Monroe Jewish Council House was actually a synagogue and I had stepped into the first Temple sanctuary I was to worship in since arriving in Monroe a few weeks earlier. The tiny congregation had utilized the living room of this small house as a sanctuary by installing a small homemade Aron Kodesh (Torah Ark) and setting out folding chairs for about fifty people. The name Monroe Jewish Council had been adopted because the congregation had not yet decided where it belonged on the spectrum of Jewish practice.
That first sanctuary was a warm, welcoming sight to a Jewish kid from Brooklyn whose father thought he was insane to leave Brooklyn and open his practice in this non-Jewish town (pop. 2500,) in the foot hills of the Ramapos. The growth of our congregation since those early days and now affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Reform Congregations necessitated a new temple. Recognizing this need, our congregation’s leaders purchased property on North Main Street in Monroe and had the current temple building built. In 1956 “The Monroe Temple of Liberal Judaism” edifice was dedicated. Our thriving congregation now worshipped in a beautiful sanctuary, which could seat 200 worshipers. Simplicity and functionality dictated it’s design and this beautiful sanctuary served our growing and vital congregation until 1986.
This new sanctuary was designed as a rectangular room with a well constructed Bimah and Aron Kodesh. The doors of the wooden Aron Kodesh were covered with raised golden Hebrew script denoting the Ten Commandments which were intoned by the Rabbi facing the open Ark at the beginning of every Shabbat service . The attached photo of my daughter’s wedding in this sanctuary also reveals the beautiful stained glass windows on either side and above the Aron Kodesh. These windows still exist in our current Temple lobby outside the current sanctuary and are a testimony to the generosity of our members who had them designed and installed to commemorate the lives of beloved, deceased relatives.
The Jewish community continued to burgeon and once again our congregational leaders responded to the need to expand our sanctuary and on September 18th , 1986 the current sanctuary was dedicated. The Psalmist sang “light is sown for the righteous and gladness for the upright” and as you enter this sanctuary with light streaming through the windows and from the ceiling loft skylights , his song comes alive. Your attention is immediately captured by the magnificent copper encased , Aron Kodesh on the Bima. This unusual use of copper connects our sanctuary directly to the copper covering of the original Mishkan, (the Tabernacle, or portable dwelling place of Adonai carried through the wilderness). The individual copper forms covering the Ark suggest life and movement and recall the fire and smoke on Mount Sinai as the Torah was received. The Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, and the Hebrew words above the doors of the Ark, “Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha–Happy Are Those Who Dwell In Your House”, complete our symbolic reminder that we are the beneficiaries and keepers of a beautiful, meaningful and vital tradition.
On our continuing journey as a congregation committed to keeping the flame of our Jewish traditions burning for generations to come we have stood on the shoulders of our prescient founders and we worship together in our magnificent sanctuary because of them.
Legacy of Stained Glass
The next time that you are in the lobby and standing right outside the sanctuary by the coatroom, flck on the switch to light up the equisite stained glass windows that at one time adorned our old sanctuary and that now grace our current lobby. Some of these works of art are exhibited below.