Filling the balcony seats with awareness

Filling the balcony seats with awareness

Posters of hostages have a powerful effect at New York’s B’nai Jeshurun

B’nai Jeshurun’s massive rose window overlooks pews with kidnapped posters taped to them.
B’nai Jeshurun’s massive rose window overlooks pews with kidnapped posters taped to them.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan is one of those old urban shuls that make you understand why its main space is called a sanctuary.

There’s a hush in the air, a solemn, formal beauty to the room, a quality of light that’s specific to these century-old buildings, which lack the wide spaces, unlimited sunlight, and feelings of abundance that most modern suburban synagogues share. But they make up for it, at least for the people who love them, with the feeling that the space somehow is inherently holy.

B’nai Jeshurun is the second-oldest congregation in New York City; it broke away from Congregation Shearith Israel/Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the city’s oldest, in 1825. Its building, on the Upper West Side, was designed by a member who was a theater architect, and that’s evident; it’s not at all showy but still a bit theatrical, with its muted yet somehow still vibrant colors and its abundance of Moorish-style arches. It was dedicated in 1917, so it’s more than a century old.

B’nai Jeshurun is formally unaffiliated but functionally Conservative. It is therefore egalitarian now but was not when the building was built — back then, the synagogue was Orthodox. So it has a horseshoe-shaped, nosebleed-high balcony, with unforgiving wooden pews steeply laddered up, up, and again up toward the ceiling. A huge rose window glows in the background.

Leah Silver, who is BJ’s first vice president although she’s in her early 30s, has been active in the shul since she was in her early teens. She married Rabbi Adam Gillman, the new rabbi of the Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, at BJ on November 12. Rabbi Gillman had spent a great deal of time at BJ when he was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, so they both felt at home there.

But when Ms. Silver looked around the shul on the Friday night before her Sunday wedding, she saw something unexpected. Some of the seats on the balcony had “Kidnapped” posters taped to them. The same kidnapped posters that all of us are used to seeing all over now. The posters that show a person — maybe a baby or a toddler, or a young adult, or perhaps a very old person, maybe even a Holocaust survivor — who was taken by Hamas and now is held hostage.

The effect is similar to the one evoked by empty chairs at a Shabbat table, waiting for hostages who won’t come to sit in them, but it’s a little different, perhaps even a little more powerful, because it’s not outside, in a public space, but instead in an enclosed room that has enclosed so many rituals, so many celebrations, so much mourning, so very much life, for more than a century.

BJ’s senior rabbis, Roly Matalon and Felicia Sol, created the display; other synagogues have done similar things.

The next day, the day of Ms. Silver and Rabbi Gillman’s aufruf, the shul was full; there were many smachot, including theirs. There were few empty seats. That meant that people would have to sit in the balcony, on the chairs that had posters taped to them.

Rabbi Sol “said that it was a blessing to have so many smachot, and to have so many people,” Ms. Silver reported. “She said that people should sit in those seats — but they should read the posters first.”

“Adam and I talked about what it would be like to be surrounded by the posters on the day of our wedding,” Ms. Silver said. “We knew that the room would be dark, and no one would be looking up there in the balcony the whole time. We also know that a lot of people noticed.” In fact, she added, she pointed the display out to some of her guests if they did not see it first for themselves.

“I feel like over the month from October 7 to our wedding, and then in the month since, the hostages feel like family, just a few degrees removed from us,” she said. “I definitely have mutual friends on Facebook with some of them. The world is that small.

“I feel like if these people weren’t being held hostage, they too would be at family smachot.”

The deeply symbolic rituals of the wedding day deepened as well because they took on a double meaning, Ms. Silver said. “The week before I asked Roly if we should say the prayer for the hostages, and he said no. ‘You break the glass.’ Felicia said that you see people getting married in Israel. You see IDF soldiers making marriage proposals.

“It feels like sometimes when you are at wedding and they break the glass, they talk about the brokenness,” Ms. Silver continued. It’s not that the talk necessarily is pro forma in normal times, but the concept of brokenness seems abstract in what increasingly seems like the Before Times.

“But now, when we break the glass, we don’t have to look far to think about brokenness. When we did it at our wedding, we all thought about the hostages.”

Feelings are always intense at a wedding — joy is so close to the surface that other emotions often surface in its wake — and the posters intensified those feelings even more. “They added to the intensity of our joy, and it also felt like in some small way this was a little act of resistance,” Ms. Silver said. “Given everything that’s going on, we still are committed to building a Jewish home.

“It added to the sanctity of the day.”

Rae Janvey, a South African-born Israeli American, lives on the Upper West Side now. She cofounded and helped design the Russell Berrie Fellowship for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and she worked with the federation and the fellowship for many years.

If her ties to New Jersey are deep, her connection to Israel is even deeper.

She’s been powerfully moved by both the Kidnapped posters and by the empty chairs on which the posters often hang. “My sister lives in the suburbs of Modi’in, and from where you go into the suburb to the kikar, the town’s main circle, there are empty baby chairs. There is such a visceral reaction to that. My sister has a 6-year-old grandson, and he said to his mother, ‘Ima, why are there baby chairs with no babies in them? Why are there highchairs with no food on them?’”

That symbolism made yerida from Israel to the rest of the world, Ms. Janvey said. “And BJ, as a community that is connected to Israel, used the metaphor.”

Last week, after some hostages were released, Rabbis Matalon and Sol asked Ms. Janvey to mark the posters to show those changes. She was tasked with putting stickers to show which hostages were back home, and which of them are known to have been killed.

“At first I wondered why they asked me to do this instead of asking someone on staff to put up stickers,” Ms. Janvey said. “And then as I entered that space, I realized that this was a profoundly holy assignment. I was there to bear witness.

“And I realized that they asked me because I hold both identities — I’m an Israeli and I’m an American.”

Her husband, Richard, helped her with the work — it was a big job, and “his reaction was as profound as mine, although it was not exactly the same as mine.”

The posters had been put up randomly; the chaotic lack of order evoked the way Hamas seemingly randomly raped some people, shot or tortured or burned others, and kidnapped some of the victims instead of killing them. Ms. Janvey had to make her way through the 239 posters and figure out what if any known fate had befallen each one.

“There was a lot of confusion,” she said. “That made it hard to do this assignment efficiently, but I took that, whether or not it was intended that way, as a holy experience. I felt that I had the responsibility of bearing witness; that entering that space of randomness and confusion and disarray was symbolic.

“What occurred on October 7 was completely unnatural. It was out of the natural order of humanity, even humanity at its most depraved and brutal. That began a profound experience of reflecting pain, of broken heartedness, of loss, on the one hand, along with very slight — very very slight — tinges of joy and relief for the families who were reunited with their loved ones.

“But we know for sure that even the ones who were released — yes, they’re reunited with their families; yes, they’re safe; yes, they’re alive, thank God, and that is enormous. But the brokenness will be forever. And it’s only now that we’re starting to hear about the horrors of captivity.

“So all this is to say that for me, what started as a sort of technical experience, putting up stickers, turned into a primal, enormous undertaking. Some of the old men still in captivity looked like my father, my boys’ saba; and these old women — they are me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how sleeping on the floor, as they’ve had to do, isn’t easy for us.

“These people became real people to me.”

The work she did was so powerful because “our brains regularly shut down when there is horror, but when you do this kind of work you are awakened to the deepest experience of presence — presence of mind, of heart, of imagination.

“And these are people we know. The degrees of separation are almost zero in Israel. These are real people who we almost know.”

She ended with a reminder. “L’azchor” — to remember — “is a foundational Jewish value. You can’t go through this kind of experience in a neutral way. This has happened before, and we are commanded to remember.

“This is who we are as a people. I felt very akin to the people at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv” — the friends and family of the hostages, and their supporters — “and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. I feel related to them. They are me, and I am them.

“I felt profound areyvut” — responsibility — “to them, and such love. It allows us to connect deeply, and to help Israelis deal with the tremendous loneliness, and also the existential loneliness, that they are feeling.

“That’s why this was such an enormous emotional experience.”

read more: