In August, when I was preparing my D’var Torah to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the synagogue building, I re-read this newspaper article about the 1913 cornerstone-laying. I had originally found it in May, but in my initial excitement I hadn’t read it closely. This time, I noticed something odd: a few paragraphs in, there was a line missing. Then another.
At this point I’ve scanned through thousands of pages of this newspaper and never noticed any other missing lines. But the lines really were not there. I even asked a library in Harrisburg to check their copy of the microfilm, and it was missing these lines as well. The reason why I went to such trouble to try to find a better copy of this article is that the missing words may be the most exciting find of all:
The “-story of the congregation, the names of the contributors and a copy of the Daily Messenger” “were placed in” what????? A few paragraphs later, a clue:
“This history, which was found in the corner stone of the old Synagogue”… does this mean what I think it means? That when they laid the new cornerstone, they once again placed the synagogue’s history (plus some other items) in it? Does this mean there is a time capsule that no one remembers? Could that time capsule still be hidden….here?
Obsessed with the possibilities, when I visited the synagogue in September (on a late summer day that feels like a distant memory as I watch the temperature drop to 1oF,) I scrutinized the construction of the cornerstone. I had initially hoped that the front of the stone, as you see it above, was a separate sort of face-plate atop the actual stone. I had thought that accessing the time capsule would be as simple as prying off this front to get at the contents within. But from my visual inspection it seems pretty clear that this stone is a solid block.
A few clues I subsequently found seem to confirm what I saw. The first is the newspaper article from the 1901 cornerstone-laying for the first synagogue building. As the excerpt above shows, at that time the papers were placed under the stone. The second is the photograph at left of a cornerstone laying from the June 6, 1903 cornerstone laying for Homestead’s First Presbyterian Church. As you can see, the men are using a crane to lower a giant stone atop an existing foundation.
While I don’t know anything else about this church’s cornerstone laying ceremony and how it might compare to either of ours, this photograph certainly suggests something about the constructions techniques of the time: no easy-access doors for people to get at things hidden inside cornerstones.
A final hint came from the archivist at the other Rodef Shalom, who pointed out to me that it took tearing down that synagogue’s first building (from 1861) to get at the time capsule laid at that time. 1 And tearing down the building is clearly not an option, not only because many of us still visit it and treasure the remarkably fine shape it is in, but also because the church which bought it in ’93 continues to use it. When I raised my suspicions of a hidden time capsule to its bishop, he pointed out that there was no way to be sure I had even correctly identified the cornerstone. Traditionally, he said, the stone called the cornerstone was actually at the base of the altar, meaning that the stone I was after might be in the floor towards the front of the building. Skepticism aside, we brainstormed how one might work around the stone I think is the cornerstone to locate the box — then we laughed at ourselves, a bishop and a techie, for pretending we knew anything about construction. In the end he gave me permission to bring a builder by to propose what it might take to discover and extract the possible time capsule in a way that would not end in unfortunate headlines about Jews destroying churches.
I haven’t moved forward on this project for a few reasons. One is that I do not know any builders in Pittsburgh — or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps I am too easily dissuaded from work that is so far outside of my experience that I do not even know how to approach it, especially when there is so much else within my reach to focus on…
…which brings us to the main reason I haven’t pushed ahead: if the contents of the time capsule are exactly as indicated in the first newspaper excerpt above, then it is not likely anything in this box will be new to us. I suspect this history is the same as the one in the synagogue’s records (in Yiddish, so not yet posted on this site pending translation), whichever issue of the newspaper they picked is available on the same roll of microfilm that started this mystery, and I believe the list of contributors can also be reconstructed from the synagogue’s records.
That said, wouldn’t it just be awesome to unearth this box after all these years?! I’ve read through the synagogue records through 1950, just before the last founder passed away, and not one word was mentioned about the time capsule, even in conjunction with the various anniversary commemorations. If a time capsule was deposited in 1913, it is very likely still there. Who wants to help me get it out?
In an article for the synagogue’s 2/28/02 bulletin, she wrote, “Time capsules are still very popular, although it is no longer recommended that they be sealed up in cornerstones.” Ya don’t say! ↩