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This Jewish Charitable Tradition Is Brought to You By…

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We visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time in over a year, which meant I could visit an old friend. Just to the left of the grand staircase is a homely marble plaque, about the size of a placemat. It’s inscribed mostly in Greek, but there is a little Hebrew too, as well as pictograms of a menorah, a shofar and what appear to be a lulav and an etrog, the Sukkot symbols.

The inscription, in Greek, reads, “Through the providence of God I, E…s, together with my wife and my children have renovated the forecourt of the sanctuary using the gifts of God.” The Hebrew reads, “…established the house of prayer. Peace.” The plaque is described as Roman and dated 400-600 CE.

Anyone who has ever set foot inside a synagogue knows what’s going on here. The object is a 1,500-year-old version of those signs reading, “The Spielvogel Vestibule, in honor of the bat mitzva of Rachel Spielvogel, from her parents.”

I find this incredibly moving. For as long as Jews have been building synagogues, they’ve been fundraising; and for as long as Jews have been fundraising, they have thanked donors with what are known in the trade as “naming opportunities.” It’s touching to consider that Jews have been reciting the same prayers for centuries; it’s hilarious and wonderful to imagine a synagogue administrator in a toga asking E…s for a donation in exchange for immortality. (Ironically, a crack in the marble obscures E…s’s full name.)

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