Beautiful Synagogue On The Hill – Roberta Sokol

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Circa 1993

Oy Vey*, I’m so old and tired; my paint is peeling, my floors are creaking, and even the roof is leaking. It is cold, silent and empty here, and I am so sad and lonely for all that was lost. Oh, but it wasn’t always like this. Remember, remember years ago when I was young and this place was bustling with people; praying, dancing, singing and congregating for happy and sad occasions with friendship, comfort and love. Yes, then I was known as the “Beautiful Synagogue* on the Hill.”

Circa 1906

They came from Europe, leaving pogroms*, poverty and their families behind. They left all that they knew and loved, never knowing if they would ever return. They left in search of a better place, to a place called America. They endured untold hardships crossing an ocean on ships that were unsafe and overcrowded.

They were young, poor and couldn’t speak the language, but arrived on our shores full of energy, hope and courage. Starting a new life; they worked hard, married, had children and eventually prospered. However, what was missing in their lives was a place to come together and celebrate their Jewishness. A place to name their babies, Bar Mitzvah* their sons, marry their children and pray together on Shabbat* and religious holidays. They decided to build their own synagogue to carry on the practices and traditions they grew up with in the “Old Country.”*

Therefore, with much love, pride and hard work, they built “Me” — the beautiful synagogue on the hill. It was a joy to feel myself, slowly come to life. The walls, the floors, the roof and especially, when the gleam of the setting sun cast its golden light over all the people praying in the sanctuary.* Back then, I was half my current size with a pot-bellied stove for heating and no air conditioning. It was bitterly cold in the winter and stifling hot in the summer. My plumbing was always troublesome and the lightning was poor, but we were happy with the conveniences we did have and nobody ever complained. Naturally, over the years I was modernized and doubled my size, with central heating, air conditioning and all the conveniences available. However, the shul* was never really about how I looked, but rather the making of memories and the spirit of warmth and welcoming that always made me feel loved and beautiful.

Over the years there were many memorable occasions and I will never forget the Shabbat service when we took out our very own torah* scrolls for the first time. It was a wondrous experience, a dream come true and not a dry eye was to be found. Oh, and who can ever forget the momentous decision in May 1948 when the United Nations declared the new state of Israel. We were delirious with happiness and there were many joyous and meaningful celebrations. Also, I was often brought to tears by the love shown during a wedding, a Bar Mitzvah and especially a baby naming ceremony. The welcoming of a newborn into the Jewish community by giving them a Hebrew name is the first step on the ladder of becoming a practicing Jewish person. How fortunate I was to be part of this first step and have the opportunity of watching these beautiful babies grow to adulthood.

There have been many special people that have crossed my portals over the years. Women and men that were caring, compassionate, devoted to their families, friends and thankfully “me”. They were always available to shop, cook, decorate and fix plumbing, electricity, painting, and doing the thankless but constant job of schlepping*, that was always needed. Their goodness, along with the time and effort given will always be remembered.

Leah and Shannah Sokoloff were a mother and daughter that epitomized the goodness and strength of my congregation. They arrived on our shores from Germany, in December of 1946, during the aftermath of the Holocaust*. They both started to build their lives anew and found untold support within our community. Speaking, on the eve of Yom Kippur, during Kol Nidre services we heard about the awful experiences they endured in Auschwitz* during the Holocaust. These two women lost everything but survived under the most deplorable conditions known to man. Interestingly, when asked about their lives in Germany before the “bad times”, they said, “We always felt we were German first, but being Jewish was of secondary importance in our lives. Afterwards, the terrible experiences we suffered made us prize our Jewishness above all else”. The hardships they endured and the courage they exhibited served as role models for all of us over the ensuing years.

I felt contented, fulfilled and it was a time of rejoicing for me and my congregation. The place was always filled with people of all ages, and the most delicious food was served. Recipes were shared that the women learned to cook, as young girls, in the homes they left behind so many years ago. There was food from many different countries and I will never forget the mouth watering aromas that enveloped the shul especially during the holidays and festivals. It was always a delight to see the excitement of the children and the enjoyment of families celebrating the holidays with special foods, rituals, and prayers. These celebrations led my people to bond together with love and friendship and they are always there to help each other in good and bad times.

Yes, there were bad times — I witnessed the hardships experienced during the depression of the 1930s, the lives destroyed during the wars of the 20th century and the unbelievable horrors of the Holocaust during the 1930s to 1940s. We grieved for all that was lost and the vibrant Jewish communities that ceased to exist in Europe after the 2nd World War. Also, in later years, who can ever forget the beautiful September morning when our country was attacked by terrorists, and the date 9/11 was forever immortalized.

In remembering the horrible tragedy of 9/11, two people — Esther and Nathan Kirsch come to mind as a special part of our community. Nathan was a police officer and in Manhattan on the fateful day in September. He saw the second plane hit the tower and as everyone was running out the crumbling building, he was running into the building, bringing out countless people to safety. Afterwards, he devoted all of his time helping in the difficult reconstruction and rebuilding of the area. Unfortunately, he suffered the consequences of his bravery and knowing his time on Earth was limited, spoke before the congregation during a ceremony honoring his sacrifices. Nathan said: “I wish I had more time to enjoy my life, but I am content knowing I made a difference in the world and would gladly do it again”. His sacrifice and unselfishness were remarkable and his name will always be remembered along with his lovely wife, Esther. She, forever saddened by the loss of her husband, became a strong and important force for other widows and children and never stopped fighting for the rights of the survivors and all the fallen heroes. During the aftermath of this tragedy, our country came together to pray in churches, mosques, and synagogues all over the world. Although, we were all scarred by these unbearable and senseless tragedies, we did survive.

Circa 1993

Then, things began to slowly change — my people got old and sick, the children grew up, moved away and it was even difficult to get a minyan for Friday night and Saturday morning services. Over the years, I started to crumble a little bit at a time until the plumbing, the roof, the electrical system, the doors and windows needed major repair and replacement. Sadly, there was no money to take care of the repairs and I began to feel sorrowful, fearful, and did not know what was going to happen to me. There was even talk of tearing me down and I felt that everyday could possibly be my last. This went on as my heart was slowly breaking.

However, one morning after a sleepless night filled with aches and pains, I heard a lot of noise on the first floor. My heart started to pound, thinking this might be my very last day. Is this the day they were going to tear me down? I started to tremble like the branches of a tree in a violent rainstorm. However, the noises became voices and as I was listening I heard females talking and thought… I don’t think there are many female workers on a wrecking crew, so maybe I was safe today. But, who were these people — and as I listened I heard…

“It has possibilities”
“A certain warmth”
“It has a history”
Of course, I also heard the naysayers “It really is a mess”

“A lot of money to fix up”

“Lots of work”

Then they all started talking at once and I could not understand a single word they were saying. However, before they left, they all agreed.

“Let’s see, maybe”

It seems the naysayers were changing their minds and for the first time in many years, I felt hopeful. I began to smile and knew that this might be the miracle I was wishing for. However, the real miracle was that new, young people moved into this area of Westchester, NY and were looking to join a synagogue. Thankfully, they found something warm and special here and chose little, falling down “Me”. Yes, I was supposed to be torn down, momentarily, but this group of ten families got together to save me. They gave much time, effort and money on my behalf. They fixed me up, took care of the painting, creaking, leaking and I was brand new again. During this process, my congregants formed lifelong friendships and a strong spiritual life within these walls. I bless the original ten families for the love and care they gave me over the years. I became a very special place for everyone, and for me the most special time is always Kol Nidre* night on Yom Kippur.* As the sound of the shofar* resonates throughout the shul, I look at a sea of faces filled with awe and reverence as they remember their loved ones and through prayer, are spiritually renewed for the coming year. It is truly a magical night!

Nevertheless, we have had our share of mishaps, sometimes coming in the form of twelve year old boys. The worst offender was “Little Shlomo” and his friends, who terrorized the junior congregation services on a beautiful Yom Kippur morning. They came up with a plan to shoot water guns into the tent where all the children were congregated for services. The rabbi* and the children did not know what was happening, when they suddenly were all dripping wet, quite confused and started to laugh or cry hysterically. They began to run out of the tent and burst into the adult services that were taking place in the sanctuary. It was quite an uproar and certainly not the Yom Kippur we had planned. However, none of the children ever forgot their “Yom Kippur shower” so many years ago and still laugh about it today.

Even worse, was the mice infestation that took place on a Friday evening Shabbat service. “Little Shlomo” and his mischievous friends were at it again. They let out a flood of mice onto my first level. While the women were watching upstairs, they could not help but laugh, seeing the men screaming, jumping up and down, standing on chairs and wildly moving about. Oh, what a sight it was! The women talked about it for years, though the men made believe it never happened, which made the women laugh even harder.

However, it is interesting to note that “Little Shlomo” grew up, married, had children, and even became president of the congregation in later years. Also, he finally confessed, when he became president of the shul, that he was the mastermind behind the water gun fiasco and the mice infestation. However, “Little Shlomo” taught me a good lesson, that we could all grow and change for the better. Who we were at twelve years old is not who we are going to be at forty years old.

The years went rushing by and I was busy with the usual; births, deaths, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and religious services. I should have been very happy, but somehow I began to question myself. Were my people and their children getting the most out of their spiritual lives and were the lessons they were learning making their personal lives better? I’m sorry to say, that a creeping feeling of doubt started to fill my days.

Circa 2020

Until… a spring night in May when a lovely young woman got out of her car, slowly walked up the steps and took a deep breath. As she opened the door, she felt her past rushing back to meet her. The parents she lost, the closeness of her brother and sister, and all the people she lovingly remembered. How sweet it was growing up, secure within walls that shaped so much of her life.

I saw tears in her eyes as she walked upstairs and sat down. Friday night services were about to begin and she looked over the edge of the balcony to see men praying downstairs. It was a welcome sight that was forever ingrained in her mind, since she was a child. Closing her eyes, she was able to envision her son, Jason, within this group, enjoying the love and support that was so readily given to all. That was why Rachel returned here, after so many years — to become a member of this community. I only know this because while Rachel was sitting upstairs, a childhood friend sat down and started to talk. This is what I overheard from Rachel. She said, “I moved away after college and only returned, on occasion, to see my family. After my parents died, I never came back and saw my brother, sister and their families once a year when we vacationed together. Divorcing, after fourteen years of marriage, I realized that I did not have a strong support system in Atlanta. At this point in my life, I needed my family and community in order to survive and prosper with my twelve year old son, Jason, and my ten year old daughter, Hannah”. As Rachel was talking, I studied her and realized who she was. She moved here when she was a baby and her parents were one of the original ten families who rescued me from the wrecking ball, so many years ago. Rachel grew up here, went to school, and made many friends. However, there were rumors, never proven and I did not want to believe, that she was actually a part of “Little Shlomo’s” posse and was involved in the water gun fiasco. Also, she was one of the three girls that I dubbed “the beauty”, “the brain”, and “the doer”. Rachael was the beauty and was even more beautiful today, However, I’m digressing and will leap ahead to the present time.

Rachel moved back here with her two children and felt she was truly home at last. Her son, Jason had a wonderful Bar Mitzvah, attended by all. Amazingly, there were still congregants who remembered Rachel and some even remembered her baby naming and Bat Mitzvah ceremony so many years ago. Eventually, she remarried a wonderful young man in our congregation, Yacov Green, and was so happy to be close to her family and friends again. Rachel found the love and support she so sorely needed, and I know I played a large part in her new found happiness. Her return and the congregation welcoming her with open arms made me realize that I should never doubt myself again. I have been an important, special part of so many lives, providing a source of comfort, guidance, and safety for all who entered these hallowed walls. My constant help, acceptance, and support will always be available, no matter where you stray in the chaotic, changing world we live in today. What a blessing for me to be part of this, throughout the years. I now know that whatever happens in the future — this “Beautiful Synagogue on The Hill” has made a little corner of the world a much better place. Also, I know I will always continue my very important journey of spreading joy, friendship and comfort forever!

 

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