Shul people 

Shul people 

They were our grandparents, my husband’s and mine.

They were responsible people, seriously Jewish. Of course, in their generation that wasn’t necessarily a choice. If you lived in a shtetl outside of Bialystok, as all four of them did, being Jewish was not an option. It was a definition. They might have left the fold, but they did not. They probably never even thought of it. They lived their lives and fulfilled their dreams of coming to America.

Wherever they ultimately settled, Jewish communities were their destination, there to give them support. Being part of a kehillah, a synagogue, was de rigeur.

They were all shul people, and so were their progeny. Us.

In addition, however, we are the generation of the pandemic, which invaded and altered our lives. We are clearly not the first generation to endure a pandemic, but we are the first generation to endure a multimedia pandemic scourge like covid19. We could not escape it. It was in our newspapers, broadcast continuously on our televisions, and a constant on the internet. Thus, the inconvenience and the terror of the pandemic were more complicated for us Jews than for many other groups, or for previous generations. Our grandparents were never glued to their TVs, awaiting the latest report from Dr. Fauci. Nor did they ever hear a sitting president inquire whether drinking bleach would destroy the virus. How could this all-consuming, multiyear epidemic not overtake and overwhelm our lives, especially our Jewish lives?

There were conflicting goals. Coming to shul requires a minyan of 10. The virus mandated that we try to avoid contagion and hunker down in our safe and secure spaces. We ate in outdoor restaurants. We relied on deliveries for groceries. We learned new phrases, like super spreader. And we added another use to a word already in our vocabulary. The word is remote. We could go to shul remotely.

The word remote took on a life of its own. People did many things remotely. As recently as yesterday I had a remote doctor’s appointment. The doctor sat at her computer and I at mine, perhaps 20 miles apart. She asked me questions. What’s my blood pressure like these days?

I asked her questions. Is it time for another pneumonia shot? And so it went — all by remote.

I know many people who work remotely until this day, who in normal times would have been at an office somewhere. Instead they work at home in a spare space.

But in Jewish practice, attending shul remains more complicated. Jews satisfied our need for prayer in different ways, just as we do in the absence of a pandemic. In our house, our dining room table became our shul sanctuary. It was from there that we Zoom-linked up to our synagogue, although we could have chosen many other synagogues in many other places. Such is the broad power of remote!

Clearly, our solution was not for everyone. I do not defend it or malign it. Those most fastidious, more machmir Jews might even consider daily davening by remote but clearly never on Shabbatot or chaggim. But, for us, the need and desire for prayer was fulfilled by Zoom services, on that dining room table, including even on the holiest of days.

Now, years after the pandemic first wreaked havoc with our lives, we have joyfully returned to shul. Real shul!

After about three years of our amens echoing up and down the stairs to the vaulted ceilings of our home, we finally have come back to our synagogue, our beit knesset, with its beautiful sanctuary, inspiring windows with their brilliant magen david motif, and treasured Torahs. And we have reunited with the chevra, the warm and wonderful people who are the soul of our congregation, with whom we’ve shared many of life’s important moments.

Now, yet again, we sit in the pews, physically within the strong brick building’s walls, part of our congregation. We are no longer remote. And it feels wonderful. It’s good to be home again, or as they say in Hebrew, הִנֵּה‭ ‬מַה‭ ‬טוֹב‭ ‬וּמַה‭ ‬נָּעִים‭ ‬שֶׁבֶת‭ ‬אָחִים‭ ‬גַּם‭ ‬יַחַד. How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together.

Yes. Covid 19 can still infect us. Although greatly diminished, it is still here. Most probably it will always be here. But we can stay away no longer!

We know that God can hear our prayers from the dining room table. I believe God can hear them from anywhere, the Kotel or the kitchen, from West Orange or Herzliya. But we need the power of the kehillah to express our most profound t’fillot, public or personal. The kehillah is in the shul.

But we tried! That first pandemic Rosh Hashanah we hosted some of our family members for a service on our driveway. The logistics were complicated but we pulled it off. We had a minyan and all of the necessities. A Torah. A shofar. Siddurim. Chumashim.

And undoubtedly the most emotional and powerful moment of that service was a live serendipitous chorale of shofarim, blasting simultaneously, in seeming coordination with our neighbors celebrating Rosh Hashanah on their own driveways, no doubt guided by the Conductor.

The logistics were daunting but we ushered in the new year beautifully that first covid Rosh Hashanah. Food and housing were challenging. And the following year, when we had all incorrectly, improbably, thought we would be back to normal, we returned to the dining room table.

During those times I often found myself thinking of my two zaydas. What would they have done? They both lived in our family house on Aldine Street In Newark’s Weequahic section. By then both were widowers, sharing homes with their children. The two of them, together, went to shul twice daily, ignoring inclement weather. They were needed for the minyan. I can picture them walking around the corner to our shul on Clinton Place, Pop, my mother’s father, a thin man with thick glasses, and Zayda, broader, more solidly built. What could they have to talk about, in Yiddish of course, twice every day? Certainly it was not about a pandemic!

Both of them had arrived in America full of dreams and family obligations. Both became businessmen, Pop as the proprietor of the Bauman House in Parksville, New York, and Zayda as an owner of real estate on Springfield Avenue in Newark. Zayda had built the family house on Aldine Street. With their busy lives they still had time for the daily minyanim.

Our shul, Rodfei Shalom, pursuers of peace, was a fundamental part of our family’s life, especially thanks to the grandfathers who sustained it and made certain there would always be a minyan for themselves and for the others in the small synagogue.

Yet the community eventually left the synagogue, moving to other communities, away from Newark. The shul disbanded and, naturally, there were decisions to be made. The holy sefarim, Chumashim, siddurim, were donated to other shuls, with their bookplates intact. I can even recall once opening a Chumash elsewhere and being gripped by emotion on seeing, and touching, the familiar dedication plate of Rodfei Shalom.

Of the Torahs I know the whereabouts of only one. It is owned and used to this day by the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF, and it was my father who brought it to them. He traveled to Israel on El Al Israel Airlines with the Torah on his lap, all the way from JFK to LHR to TLV. There our shul’s Torah was welcomed at a poignant military ceremony. What more fitting place to donate a Torah? Rodfei Shalom lives on through our memories and that wonderful gift. Perhaps our own chayal has read from that very Torah.

My parents moved to Israel and continued their lives as shul people. They became longtime stalwarts of the Herzliya Synagogue which became their own until they left us in old age. May their memories be a blessing.

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!

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