When Congregation Achduth Vesholom celebrates its 160th anniversary Sunday, it will be with a piece of its 19th-century Jewish past brought back to it by modern technology.
The item is an engraved, golden-topped walking stick, presented by the congregation to its founder, that had been languishing in a Philadelphia-area man’s estate.
The tale worthy of PBS’ “History Detectives” began with an e-mail that arrived at the synagogue’s office in April, says Beth Zweig, of Fort Wayne, the congregation’s president and celebration coordinator.
“Hi, my name is Ed Romanofsky. I’m doing a favor for a friend. He has an old cane,” the e-mail began.
Romanofsky, 56, of Havertown, Pa., picks up the story. The friend, Ed Campuzano of Upper Darby, was cleaning out his brother’s house after his death and found the cane. It was inscribed “F. Nirdlinger Esquire from the members of Congregation Achduth Vesholom, Fort Wayne, Ind.”
Campuzano wanted to give the cane back to F. Nirdlinger’s family, Romanofsky says, but despaired of ever finding anyone.
“He’s computer-illiterate. I’m not, and so we went and I looked it up. You can Google anybody,” Romanofsky says.
Lo and behold, the name “Frederic Nirdlinger” appeared on the congregation’s Web site history. And when the e-mail arrived, “F. Nirdlinger” was instantly recognizable to Zweig, who has written about the congregation’s early history.
Nirdlinger, she says, was not just anybody. The German-born merchant was the leader of the 23 founding members of the Society for Visiting the Sick and Burying the Dead, the predecessor to Achduth Vesholom.
Indeed, he had allowed the young, then-Orthodox, Jewish congregation, the oldest in Indiana, to meet in his brick home for services. Men sat in one parlor and the women and children in another, as was traditional then, she says.
The house “stood on the site where Coney Island is today,” says Zweig, noting that Nirdlinger was an astute businessman whose New York Emporium grew to be one of the largest clothing stores in Indiana of its time.
While there were no Nirdlinger descendents in the congregation as Romanofsky and Campuzano had hoped, Zweig knew where to find one.
A few years ago, she says, Roger and Mimi Arnstine of Cleveland had contacted the congregation while visiting Fort Wayne to research their genealogy at the Allen County Public Library. Roger Arnstine is Frederic Nirdlinger’s great-great-grandson.
Zweig contacted them, and the walking stick was reunited with the Arnstines by August, but not before the cane found its way into an antiques store and had to be retrieved.
The story goes that Campuzano’s brother found the cane maybe 40 years ago on a Pennsylvania Railroad train that ran from Philadelphia to New York. “He liked it and took it home with him,” Romanofsky says.
“I guess they didn’t have the Internet then,” he adds with a laugh.
Zweig is not sure when the stick was presented to Nirdlinger.
She looked through volumes of the congregation’s records translated from German at the Allen County Public Library but found no mention of the gift, although she did find a tribute to Nirdlinger upon his death in 1873.
But Zweig thinks that the cane might have been a gift in 1865, when Nirdlinger completed 15 years as president of the congregation.
The Arnstines, meanwhile, plan to attend Sunday’s celebration, which will also be attended by another Nirdlinger descendent who recently came forward.
Kristine Nirdlinger, who is a great-great-great-niece of the founder and lives in the Chicago area, contacted the congregation around Rosh Hashanah. She is coming with her fiancé and her parents, Zweig says.
The young woman recently learned her ancestors were Jewish as she prepared to marry a Jewish man. She has converted to Judaism, discovering her link to the congregation in the process, according to Zweig.
The Arnstines have lent the congregation the walking stick for the celebration and may donate it after the impending arrival of a grandchild, a sixth-generation Nirdlinger descendent, Zweig says.
Zweig says she has no idea why the congregation would have chosen a walking stick as a gift but notes that if it becomes part of the congregation’s permanent collection, it will join another cane that was a similar ceremonial presentation.
The congregation has a walking stick given in 1866 to the congregation’s third rabbi, Edward Rubin. Rubin introduced the Reform movement of Judaism to the congregation, which joined it as a charter member in 1874.
Rubin also was instrumental in establishing the name Achduth Vesholom, which means “Unity and Peace” in Hebrew, and was its first rabbi under that name.
The congregation, which has been served since last year by Rabbi Marla Joy Subeck Spanjer, is the second-oldest Reform congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains, Zweig says. Reform Judaism began as a progressive movement within Judaism that offers members more flexibility in worship, diet and other matters pertaining to how they express and live out their religion.
Zweig, 49, sees the walking stick as linking generation to generation, which is the theme for one of two pieces of art commissioned by the congregation for the anniversary.
“It … serves as a reminder of the leadership, commitment and love of Judaism that remains our foundation,” she says.