Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark)
Hand-carved wood, ca. 1779
Schönlanke, Poland (former Posen territory)
Scheuer Chapel, Herrman Learning Center
Cincinnati Skirball Museum Kirschstein Collection
Written by Shmuel Polin
HUC-JIR Rabbinical student, Cincinnati campus
Have you ever wondered what is the story behind the Aron HaKodesh standing inside of the Scheuer Chapel? For decades, what was known or believed about this elaborately carved wooden ark was as follows: it was believed to have stood in a wooden synagogue in Posen, Poland; it dated to 1740; it was part of the Salli Kirschstein Collection of European Judaica acquired for Hebrew Union College by librarian Adolph Oko in 1925–1926. As part of my senior capstone project on Aronot Kodesh of the wooden synagogues of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, I have conducted research that has led to new discoveries about the Scheuer Chapel ark.
A key piece of new information comes from a shipping label discovered on the back of the ark during a recent conservation project. The label indicates that the ark was more specifically from the small town of Schönlanke (Trzcianka), outside of Posen. The year 1740 was likely based on the date of construction of the town’s first synagogue. However, it is noted in records that the town’s first synagogue, along with its Aron HaKodesh, was destroyed in a fire in 1779. Instead, the ark
should be tied to the ensuing buildings associated with the old Beit HaMidrash (house of study) of Schönlanke (known as the Chevre-shul). The old Beit HaMidrash of Schönlanke had been established by 1772 at the latest and was financed by a man named Jacob Moses (1724–1802). In 1740, Moses was only 15 or 16, underscoring that the 1740 date for the ark should be revised. Records also indicate that the Aron HaKodesh was part of a shared prayer space used by the Beit HaMidrash and the town’s synagogue. At the earliest, this space was in operation in 1779. Records of the second phase of the building, rebuilt in 1823, describe the structure of the wooden synagogue (Holzsynagogue) that clearly housed the ark.
In 1869, the Chevre-shul moved, and many of its ritual items were transferred to the new site of the Beit HaMidrash. In 1882, the old synagogue was torn down and a new “modern” synagogue replaced it. The ark was moved, along with other ritual items, to the dwindling Beit HaMidrashbefore the Beit HaMidrash closed in 1897. It was perceived as a relic of a bygone era, perfect for Kirschstein’s collection, and ultimately for the Scheuer Chapel on the historic Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR.