Note: This article was published in the October issue of The Scroll.
The building looked old. I would have to guess that it was more than 100 years old. I had to climb three flights of stairs. The walls had clearly not seen a wet paintbrush in decades. The paint had obviously been peeling off although all the flaking paint had been cleaned away. The concrete steps were sturdy but showed their age. They too had not been painted in many years.
When I reached the third floor, a sign pointed me to a huge open space. I paced it out and it measured approximately 125 x 250 feet. It was clearly a former factory floor although I am betting it had not served that purpose in a very long time. For all I know, this may have been the site of a former sweatshop from the early 20th century.
Its purpose on this day was much different.
Just inside the doorway stood a table with High Holiday Machzorim on it. Most of the floor had been cordoned off with large white sheets creating artificial walls. Within those walls were chairs, tables, and everything one needed to hold a Minyan.
It was Shabbat Shuva and I had a weekend off. I decided to attend this Minyan because it was closest to my house and the Shule that was renting the space used to be the Shule I went to regularly. Of course, the Rabbi has changed and I did not know most of the people anymore, but I knew some of the congregants and it was good to see the old friends.
As I participated in the service, I was struck by two things. The first was the drastic contrast between these stark quarters with makeshift walls and air conditioning ducts suspended from the ceiling and our incredibly beautiful sanctuary at Shaarey Israel. Second, despite the COVID-inspired, sparse location, the Ruach (spirit) in the room was amazing. Everyone wore masks and the sheer immenseness of the room made social distancing a breeze. All that was left, was for the service to follow as it has amongst Jews for centuries.
History has taught us that Jews have celebrated and prayed in all kinds of places. Pictures exist of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto baking Matzah in that Nazi created hellhole. Jews prayed in Auschwitz. In fact, there exist copies of handwritten prayer books for the High Holidays that were written in Auschwitz by those who knew the prayers for those who did not. Throughout the millennia, we Jews have found ways to practice our faith regardless of our conditions.
Did you hear about Congregation Adas Israel of Duluth, MN? You may have heard the story. It was the last Orthodox congregation in Duluth, MN and it burned down this past year. I was the Cantor there for 7 High Holiday seasons. I used to love to go downstairs into the basement sanctuary, the equivalent of our “small sanctuary” at Shaarey Israel, and browse through their incredible collection of ancient Hebrew books. I discovered two books I wish I could have taken with me: two Siddurim, one from World War I and one from World War II, that were issued to Jewish servicemen by the United States Army for use in the field. I remember the picture in my mind of Jewish servicemen in the trenches in France, dealing with all kinds of horrible conditions, and still taking the time to put on their Tefillin and say their prayers. I think of Jewish servicemen on Okinawa fighting the Japanese and still taking time out to say their prayers.
These heroes, the servicemen who fought with weapons and the prisoners in the ghettos and concentration camps who fought with their will and determination, kept their faith in the most heinous of conditions.
I thought of all that just a scant two weeks ago. And I was reminded of something I have known for a long time: A building, no matter how beautifully architected and built, regardless of the materials used in its construction, is not a Shule without the people who pray in it.
Our facilities at Shaarey Israel are incredibly beautiful. There are times when I stand in our incomparable sanctuary and am amazed at the love and care that went into building that edifice. And yet, for one relatively short Shabbat morning service, I was as happy as I have been while reciting my prayers on a former factory floor.
Please do not get me wrong. I much prefer to Daven in a beautiful building. But, it isn’t the building that makes us a Shule. You do. Your attendance, your participation, your caring: these are the things that make Shaarey Israel a truly great place. Without you, the beautiful building is just that: a beautiful building made of beautiful materials. Put differently, the building may be the body of the congregation but you make up its soul.
Sukkot starts tomorrow night and we still live in the shadow of COVID. It has kept so many of us away from Shule for good reasons. Never forget, though, that we miss you. Even the building misses you for, without you, it has no purpose.
So, for those of you who cannot make it to Shule, we understand. We want you safe and we would prefer to wait than rush you back. Your well being is paramount. But know this: you are part of the soul of Shaarey Israel, and a soul does not require a body. You add to who we are, right where you are. You can still reach out and support your community, you can still be a member of this congregation, you can still attend our virtual services. Your absence from the building is felt but you are part of what makes us who we are. Never forget that. I know that we never do.
Chana and I would like to you wish all of you a truly Chag Sameach!