I was reading upside down when the name popped out at me—Naomi Goroff, my mother’s sister and certainly the only person with that name from Chelsea.
For several years, I have been managing a research project to locate, photograph, transcribe and post yahrzeit plaques throughout Massachusetts. With a wonderful team of volunteer photographers (Al Bernstein and Sue Rosenstrauch) and volunteer transcribers (led by master wizard David Rosen), we have photographed about 80,000 plaques, of which 40,000 have already been transcribed and posted. (The data are available on http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/Memorial/
The project is the “little sister” of the worldwide cemetery project (JOWBR), also run by Jewishgen (JewishGen.org). I had signed up for it because I had earlier developed a database of all synagogues that had existed in Massachusetts and did not want to lose the information I had uncovered about the whereabouts of yahrzeit plaques from synagogues that had closed.
This fall, I was in the home stretch—going back to places that hadn’t worked out the first time around because plaques were in storage or otherwise unavailable. I wanted to make one last effort to pin down these elusive records.
Among them were plaques from the old Shurtleff Street Shul in Chelsea (Shomrei Linas hazedek Anshei Volin), which opened in 1923 and closed in the mid-1990s. I had already located some of these plaques at two other synagogues in Chelsea, but I had learned that the bulk of them had been rescued by the Kollel in Brighton, a wonderful study center of serious learning led by Rabbi Naftali Beer.
At the beginning of the project, I had spoken to Rabbi Beer, who said the plaques were in a closet. I went there with two strong men (David Rosen and Jay Sage) and learned just how heavy these bronze plaques are! We couldn’t budge them, even to take pictures.
Now I called Rabbi Beer again to find out if the plaques had been unearthed and displayed. No, he said, although the Kollel had moved to another building in the neighborhood. (Wouldn’t that mean, I thought, that the plaques had seen the light of day in the transition?) Now he mentioned for the first time that he also had ledgers from the Shurtleff Street Shul containing the names on the plaques as well as some efforts by his own team to track down names.
Well, Al Bernstein and I were over there like a shot! We put the books between us. Al took photos one page at a time and I turned the page. It was fairly laborious, but oh so worth it! Imagine my astonishment when I came upon my mother’s sister Naomi Goroff and her parents!
I found the names of my mother’s parents, whose yahrzeits and fathers’ names I already knew. But I had long carried a memory of my beloved grandfather’s funeral, when the cortege stopped in front of the shul for people to come out and pay homage—apparently an old-world custom. When I started researching the shuls in Chelsea, it was the outside of the Shurtleff Street Shul that looked familiar. But I had never been able to find anything to confirm my memory and establish my grandparents’ connection to that shul—and now, here it was, staring across the table at me!
Obviously, I haven’t put in all this work to learn more about my own family — it was an unexpected bonus — but to provide the same moments of discovery to other researchers. However, I can’t deny that finding this personal link elated me and gave a deeper measure of meaning to all my work.
For those who also have Chelsea roots, these records are being transcribed as I write. They will be submitted to Jewishgen http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/Memorial/ within a few months. If you want to help with the transcription, click here Clingan@jgsgb.org.
To see the database Massachusetts Synagogues and Their Records, Past and Present go to http://jgsgb.org/pdfs/MassSynagogues.pdf
Read more: JGSGB’s Memorial Plaques Project