Tag Archives: synagogue

Finding Genuine Connection  

by Paula Jacobs  (Framingham MA)

When the world appears bleak – school shootings, human rights violations, and even day-to-day aggravations that seem magnified in challenging times – I have sometimes opted to bury myself in distractions rather than genuinely connect with others. But then I hear the words of Hillel the Elder in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4), Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur, “Do not withdraw from the community.”

So what do I do? On Shabbat I come to synagogue. No cellphones or texting allowed. As the hazzan leads us in spirited prayer, I join in the animated communal davening where, whether in harmony or off-pitch, everyone feels welcome. It’s here that the anxiety that envelops me and the outside world temporarily disappears.  And it’s here that I feel closely connected.

My soul comes alive as I chant from the Torah. As I vocalize the words of our ancient tradition, I connect to the past, reflecting how my ancestors clung to the teachings of the Torah for the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships and struggles.

These days I attend Shabbat services regularly, and find it uplifting to be in the company of familiar faces. I kvell with the bar/bat mitzvah family, and am grateful for the privilege of sharing the joy of a simcha such as a special birthday, anniversary, baby naming, or upcoming trip to Israel.  And, of course, I love socializing with friends young and old.

It is here at shul during kiddush lunch where I am able to engage in the genuine and intimate human conversations that create and strengthen connections.  Importantly, in this safe space we each can be our authentic self, instead of an idealized screen image projected by social media on our mobile devices.

I listen empathetically when friends regale me with their tales of joy or woe, sometimes sharing my own stories or kvetches.  As I look at smiling faces, listen to voices in pain, or hear opinions that conflict with my own, I reflect how we truly learn to develop empathy and understanding:  It is by observing a facial expression, hearing an emotional tone of voice, and learning to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – and not by clicking on an emoji or Facebook “like.”

It is here – unplugged from mobile devices – that genuine human communication has been reclaimed.  And it is here that I am reminded that when our only connection is superficially via text or email or social media, we miss the opportunity for meaningful human interaction, the sort that occurs via face-to-face conversation and one-on-one personal dialogue.

In today’s uncertain world, real human connection feels more important to me than ever, and why I so appreciate my spiritual Jewish community where I have found genuine connection, comfort, and family. It’s in this sacred space that I have learned what connection is really all about. That’s why it’s the place I am so proud to call my haven, my harbor, my home.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.

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The Third Night of Hanukkah

by Diana Henning (Cape Town, South Africa)

This story is based on a true event which unfolded on the night of Tuesday 4 December, 2018.

The mobile phone rings urgently on the bedside table; my husband answers.

“Dave, do you know that your synagogue is on fire?”

We both sit upright, fully alert now.

Tracy, our neighbour, is Christian, but she has a fond interest in our faith and cares about the well-being of her Jewish neighbours. My husband and I pull on our clothes over our pyjamas and dash toward our shul which is located a few metres away from where we live. On the way, we spot our rabbi racing towards his workplace, which is aflame against the night sky.

It’s the third night of Channukah. Earlier on we had sung Ma’oz Tzur to celebrate the miracle.  How had a happy holiday turned into such a calamity?

Smoke is billowing from the roof and three fire engines have surrounded the building. The firemen squirt their hoses towards our shul but the inferno is indomitable. As word of the tragedy spreads around our city, more and more onlookers arrive;  friends, curious neighbours, members of the press. I spot my friend, Elaine, in her dressing gown, her hair tousled. We embrace silently.

Our security organisation battles to prevent the public from running into the pyre to save the Torahs.

“Get back everybody. For your own safety please remain behind the tape!”

Shards of broken windows burst onto the street. The scene is reminiscent of those horrifying visuals of Kristallnacht that we know all too well. The firemen dash in and out of the fire’s grip, with their oxygen tanks at hand. They haul out many religious items and holy books. A human chain is formed; the books are lovingly wiped with towels and laid out on trestle tables to dry.

We all look out anxiously for the Sifrei Torah, but only one tiny Torah is carried out. The rabbi cradles it like a baby and places it in a towel. It is burnt irreparably, and we are later informed that all the other Torot were incinerated.

People around us begin to sob as the severity of the event unfolds.They sway and sag as they mourn the loss of the scrolls. The rabbis that have come from around the city simultaneously rip their shirts; bury their heads in pure despair. Yitkadal v’yitkadash sh’meih rabah…

Even as we stand there, people are posting video clips to social media; within hours, thousands have heard the news and hundreds of messages of support stream in.

Someone has remembered that the firemen are thirsty and dozens of bottles of water are handed to them. They sit on the pavement and begin to pack away their equipment. We slowly disperse, still in shock. It is clear that as a physical entity, our house of worship is no longer, but its spirit will surely live on.

Diana Keschner Henning lives with her husband  in the cosmopolitan suburb of Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa. Besides penning flash fiction, she loves arm-knitting, walking and pampering her fur babies. 

For readers concerned about how the fire might have started, Diana adds, as a postscript to her story, that “insurers are still assessing the fire; however congregants have been assured that it wasn’t arson.”

 

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Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.

I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.

No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.

This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.

That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it?  And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”

But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.

Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.

I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”

These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?

Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.

Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

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The Old Synagogue

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

The old synagogue sits stubbornly closed
amid the open stores along Ave. U.,
its two main doors locked shut
as passersby speak Russian and Chinese.
For me, the shul  might as well lie
on the other side of a mountain pass,
requiring a leap of faith I am unable to make
since the days long ago when punch ball
prevailed over prayer and time spent inside
seemed more detention than worship.
Maybe if the doors were open just a bit,
and I could peek inside, the deep dovening
would entice, but because the doors are closed,
mostly in my own mind, I’ll walk on by,
sit at my favorite diner seat and contemplate
why my life spins in spiritual confusion.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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