Congregation Achduth Vesholom in Fort Wayne is Indiana’s oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1848 by a group of 23 people as a “Society for Visiting the Sick and Burying the Dead”. In 1874, the congregation became a “Reform” congregation, meaning they are Reform Jews as opposed, for example, to Orthodox or Conservative Jews. In their current and fourth home at 5200 Old Mill Road you can find not only an historical marker out front but also a small museum inside.
CAV is undergoing some renovation work to transform it into Campus 5200. When the project is complete, the Temple be larger and will also be the home of the Jewish Federation and a newly remodeled Temple Head Start program through CANI. With this come plans to expand their existing museum and increase programming on topics of interest to the Jewish and wider community including that of Holocaust Education.
Recently, the museum committee met with Jonathan Greenstein, an expert on antique Judaica, who hails from New York City. Greenstein was in Fort Wayne to evaluate the objects in the CAV museum to help the committee determine how best to utilize what they now own and how to expand upon it. His determination was that the pieces from the 1860s should be the foundation of the museum’s expansion.
Greenstein also gave a presentation on Judaica works and offered thoughts on the value of various pieces that Temple members brought to the lecture.
Greenstein became interested in antique Judaica at age 14 as a “yeshiva reject” who ended up in public school with time on his hands after 1 pm. He went to work in an antique store in his neighborhood and watched “scores of little old Jewish ladies” bring in Kiddush cups (ritual wine goblets) because the price of silver was then $40 an ounce. Their children had no interest in these items from “the old country”.
Although Greenstein was not as connected to Judaism as he is now (he wears a yarmulke), he still felt that something was not right about melting these objects down. So he struck a deal with the owner of the antique shop, who was not Jewish, to buy the cups at cost. His collection grew and so did his interest in Jewish history. After he became a father, his connection to his religious background became a more central part of his life and he told stories to his children about the history of particular objects as his family used them.
“Each time we would light a Chanukah menorah from a different time and place in Jewish history, I would explain to them what was happening in the world at the time the piece was created. For example, when I made Kiddush on a cup that was made in Nuremberg, Germany in the 1770's, my son knew that this cup was created at about the same time as the American Revolution was taking place. History became real before his eyes!
“Over the last 15 years or so, I have worked to become the American authority on Antique Judaica. About 10 years ago, I was asked to run a charity auction for a branch of Chabad, in which we placed some antique Judaic pieces. Many of the important items sold. From there I created the only auction house in the world solely devoted to the sale of antique Jewish ritual art. That was 9 years, 30 auctions and thousands of sold pieces ago.” (quotes from Greenstein on http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/01/02/the-master-of-judaica/)
Greenstein termed Judaica as any ritual object that is associated with Jewish art. Many pieces are rare, having survived WWII intact. Hitler and his army as well as Russian forces confiscated many pieces for the silver, which was melted down and re-used. A piece inscribed with Hebrew is typically worth about 10x what a piece that is not inscribed but forgeries of Judaica are second only to Fabrege works. You can, interestingly enough, find mythical creatures such as unicorns on some pieces.
There are about 700 avid collectors of Judaica in the world at this time, according to Greenstein and overall about 2000 collectors total. “Many of those collectors are casual, many active and several very passionate. People who have put money into quality antique Judaica over the years have seen tremendous returns on their investments, and as an added bonus, they were able to use the objects.”
Jewish artisans took on the art forms of the countries where they were living. For example, a Polish Kiddush cup would be “folksy” (Greenstein’s word) while German and Viennese vessels are more “symmetrical”. One of the pieces he showed was in an Art Deco style and had been created in the 1930s. Another piece resembled a sunflower and had been made in the Ukraine where sunflowers grow en masse.
“Jewish ritual items can be found in the U.S. in families with relatives who came to this country during the great Jewish immigration years, between the 1880s and the 1940s. Those immigrants brought everything with them, such as menorahs, silver spice boxes, and Kiddush cups that had been in their families for generations, says Greenstein.
“He says some of these pieces are valuable, but since many immigrants were poor, most of the objects are made of bronze rather than silver. But even a moderate collectible item can be worth $3,000 to $5,000.
“More commonly, Greenstein says he sees Kiddush cups worth $1,000 or so, although some that are inscribed and were made before World War II are worth as much as $50,000 to $75,000. ‘The more aesthetically pleasing anything is, the larger it is, and the rarer it is, the more valuable it is,’ says Greenstein.
“While the supply of these items is very limited, there is still much of it to be unearthed. ‘There are over six million Jews in America plus countless others who have Jewish relatives,’ says Greenstein. ‘There are more Jewish treasures in the apartments in New York, Los Angeles, South Florida, and Cincinnati than in any museum in the world.... People may not realize they could be sitting on a goldmine.’" (http://www.dailyfinance.com/2013/05/19/the-indiana-jones-of-judaica-tracks-down-treasur/)