Thursday, August 23, 2012

Synagogue Yahrtzeit Boards

[Preface: Historically, Jews memorialized their loved ones by funding lamps for the synagogue or study hall on their relatives' yahrtzeits (the anniversaries of their passing). They also dedicated items in their memory. Over time, this morphed into a practice of making a donation to the synagogue, and placing a nameplate plaque on a special "Memorial Board" or "Yahrtzeit Board" in the synagogue. Light bulbs are lit beside these plaques on the day of the person's yahrtzeit and on days when the memorial Yizkor prayer is recited.]

I grew up in a shul which had the standard, twentieth century, heavy metal yahrtzeit board, with heavy plaques attached. The plaques were flanked by sockets for small incandescent light bulbs, which flickered constantly. You can see models here.

At some point, though, my shul (Young Israel of Oceanside) made the leap to a new form of board: Custom-made wood boards, finished to match the shul's décor, on which the plaques were attached. Instead of sockets for individual incandescent bulbs, one vertical flourescent bulb lined each column, behind the board, and each plate was flanked by holes which could be sealed (ie off) or left open (ie on).

The leap from the first model to the second makes a lot of sense, solving many problems:
1. The old metal boards are incredibly heavy, requiring strong walls and serious anchoring;
2. The bulbs on the old boards flickered because their contacts were supposed to hit a metal plate which conducted electricity behind the boards. Over the years of having the bulbs screwed in or unscrewed for yahrtzeits or yizkor or just by children who played with them, the contacts eroded, so that they didn't reach the metal plate well;
3. The old boards are incredibly expensive;
4. The old boards are very dated, in their appearance.

Why don't all shuls switch to similar newer, cheaper, more effective memorial boards? Largely because they already have multiple old boards. Members don't want the new boards to look different. Members don't want the new ones to look less expensive. Members don't want to have change, in general.

In truth, my shul in Allentown went even further. When it came time to add a board, we revamped the system altogether. At the impetus of a particular member who took this on as a personal project for the shul, we set up a digital picture frame showing a digital nameplate plaque. On a given day, the picture frame scrolls through all of the plaques for the day's yahrtzeits. On a yizkor day, the frame scrolls through all of the plaques.

Aside from solving the problem of running out of space, anchoring new boards, affording new boards and so on, this also made my job easier. Standard boards require that someone go through them every few days, turning bulbs on or uncovering spots for upcoming yahrtzeits and turning the bulbs off or covering up spots for yahrtzeits which have passed. Now, it's all automated, using databases to regulate what will be displayed, and when. The only regular adjustment is the display's on/off time, to make sure it is operational when people come for minyan in the evenings.

I admit that I was disturbed, at first, by the possibility that people who had memorialized their loved ones in the old system might not see this new method of display as adequate; after all, we had contracted to light bulbs next to their plaques, not to use this newfangled system. But people were very comfortable with it, and so we went with it.

This is what a digital plaque looks like:

Of course, the new system did raise a different question – If we can have a digital screen in operation on Shabbos and Yom Tov, what about having a running ticker with the sports scores…


  1. Reminds me a bit of the old joke:

    Q: How many congregants does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: You want to change the lightbulb?! My grandfather donated that lightbulb!

  2. For generations, our family belonged to a now-defunct shul on Staten Island. The building was closed a few years ago and later sold to a church by somebody. We have no idea where the memorial plaques and donation plaques naming family members went. So even metal plaques might not be all that permanent.

  3. Would be a great semester project for a computer-engineering student: a big yahrtzeit board with one light by each plaques, but all the lights are controlled by a central computer.

    I take it you've seen the switch to little LED bulbs (much less hot!), as well as the newer push-on/push-off square LED lights.

  4. One might question the substitution - what was the understanding of the donor? I have seen folks linger as they pass the plaques to gaze at their departed's plaque on a non-yahrtzeit/yizkor day.
    Joel Rich

  5. Another possibility is to leave the plaques in place without lighting them individually, while also using the electronic substitute to display any departed's name, etc., on his/her yahrzeit.

  6. Personally the childhood memory of the big boards -- especially when it would be lit like the blazes for yizkor days -- is something -- well, special.

    There's also a Congregation "Bnai Abraham" (name changed) that took a bunch of boards from a different city's "Bnai Abraham" when that synagogue closed. Those names may be strangers, but I find the concept meaningful ... there's a reason many admire Judaism's remembrance of the dead.

  7. Great idea. Saves on space, upkeep, and frankly adds a lot to the decor. Next shul Im in charge will hopefully get one. Brad

  8. Do you think that Severance must be paid to all Rebbeim in the U.S.A.?

  9. Daniel-
    Thanks for the laugh; I needed that tonight!

    That's sad. I do know of many shuls which house others' plaques.

    Yes, I have seen those. The push buttons are also vulnerable to deterioration over time, unfortunately.

    Yes, that was my point in seeing what people wanted for the plaques they had dedicated - but people were very comfortable, as long as the physical plaque remained up.

    Yes, that's what we did.

    "lit like the blazes" seems inappropriate for this...

    Hatzlachah with it!

  10. My shul is a very old shul with about 500 plaques. They are in alphabetical irder on each board. I computerized them (helps with notices, even though we have contact info for ~10% of them), and included which board and column (Eg A1, A2...B1, B2 etc) so it's easy to find them to screw in the bulb for yahrzeits. I think Sefardic shul in one of 5 towns has the plaques listed by yahrzeit date.

    People do like seeing the plaques to "visit" even when it is not the yahrzeit. So while I like the picture idea (I'd like to see more details to see if it makes sense to try), there is something of seeing all plaques.

    Our shul "inherited" another 400 plaques from a shul that closed. The elderly people are happy that someone takes care of the plaques.

    Shalom - WE Baum makes a computerized system so you don't have to manually turn on the bulbs. (My antivirus won't let me see their website)

  11. It's not always clear which new shuls inherit the plaques of defunct shuls. Shuls in the process of closing can have disintegrating management teams, current or former officers going off on their own with shul assets, etc.

  12. Shasdaf-
    If they are alphabetized, how long does it take someone to move all of the plaques when an 'A' dies? And don't families mind it, if they had wanted to be listed together?


  13. The boards that are full are already alphabetized. The currently filling-up board (let it slow down) are approximately alphabetical and there are gaps in it. No family has ever complained to me in over 10 years about the families not being together.

  14. Very great and amazing ideas..This will be very beneficial..