Against the Dying of the Light

A few weeks ago, I traveled back home to Niles, IL, to officiate at a good friend’s wedding and spend some time with family.  I took the kids geocaching near the pool where I used to lifeguard.  Walking back toward my childhood home, we passed by the neighborhood shul, a once-vibrant Chicago suburban congregation which had not been my own synagogue, but where I attended several b’nai mitzvah and services from time to time.  The past decade had been particularly challenging for Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation, and (in the absence of a nearby constituency) they were finally forced to close their doors last year.

So here I was with my children, trying to explain this to them as we gazed at a building in transition, how it wasn’t really a “sad” thing that a cross now adorned the exterior brick of the sanctuary, even before they had had a chance to remove the shofar and Torah depicted on the adjoining wall.  I explained that Christianity is a valuable religion espousing many good values that we Jews ought to appreciate, and how nice it is that the new occupants of the building will still be worshiping God there.

And yet, even as I said this, there was a part of me that grieved deeply for the loss of this once Jewish space.  I wept internally for the sound of Jewish schoolchildren’s footsteps that would no longer reverberate against the cinder block walls in the hallways. I wondered what would happen to the ner tamid which used to cast its  eternal light upon the Torah scrolls below — scrolls that have since found a home in other congregations.  I put on a good face for my children, but the child who had once occupied my own skin had something else to say entirely.

Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation: a Building in Transformation

I don’t speak of miracles lightly, but it seems almost miraculous that Baltimore’s Beth Am is still a shul.  Human cultural migration patterns are a powerful thing.  In many ways it did not make (obvious) sense for 2501 Eutaw Place to remain a Jewish space.  It easily could have gone the way of several great former Baltimore congregations whose erstwhile buildings are now adorned with crosses.

Perhaps this is what makes my job so inspiring.  The muted tap tap of little feet on the carpet, the soaring ark and eternal flame, the wooden pews with tarnished name plates from yesteryear merge into the visceral and temporal richness of Jewish experience here.  Indeed the intersection of Baltimore’s Jewish past and present seems to saturate the very walls of the historic building in which I sit as I type these words.

My heart grieves a little for the synagogues that are no more, but it celebrates this shul that was… and is.

September 11, 2001

By the time I jumped into the passenger seat of my friend’s car in West L.A., the plane had already struck the second tower nearly three thousand miles to the East.  His car was small anyway, but felt especially compact that morning, the air restricted as we listened to the radio broadcast and moved through the Sepulveda Pass. We were on our way to seminary, two rabbinical students silently contemplating the shifting landscape, and God. 

Not long after, we joined our classmates for morning prayers.  The service-leader sounded muted, defeated as he mumbled the ancient Hebrew words.  But he tripped on the “Prayer for the Wicked.”  In Bel Air, on most days with the sun shining, overlooking the San Gabriel Mountains, we would whisper that prayer – a pinch of shame at the liturgy’s rare admonishment. 

But today, we whispered the blessings for knowledge and healing and prosperity and redemption – and he shouted, “Blessed are You, Lord, who destroys enemies and humbles the arrogant.  We were startled as if from a slumber and then swayed like children rocking ourselves in the dark, a bit too old for our mothers to oblige our fear of monsters.