A Message from your Empty Shul

My dear Chaveirim,

It breaks my heart that you won’t be joining me this year. I look across my plaintive pews, my solitary seats. They’re all empty, bereft of your warm presence, your plentiful prayers, and yes, your rambunctious noisy chatter. The bimah is forlorn, the siddurim and chumashim mute and unopened.

The Aaron Kodesh (the holy ark) is packed with our precious Torah scrolls but there’s nobody there to open it. The scrolls are calling out to be read but I gently counsel them to be patient and remind them that you may not open their crisp pages but you’ll be reading their words from your homes.

I’m feeling kind of silenced and stunned but then, I guess, so are you somewhat shell-shocked from the alacrity of this little mutant called Coronavirus. Kind of reminds me of the haste, the “chipazon” in which the Jewish people left Egypt. Except their rush was to freedom, this little bug is swift in its rush to confine us…

There’s an emptiness in my heart this Pesach, the space which you usually so vibrantly fill is void. It’s like the “tohu vavohu”, the eery astonishing vacuum at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2).

But, my friends, even if I’m physically uninhabited, I’m not really abandoned. I believe with perfect faith that you will return to me. I believe – Ani Maamin – that this too will end. I draw that faith from the light that continues to pour through my gorgeous stain-glassed windows. I draw strength from the eternal light above the Ark which continues to burn and glow even while you’re not here. I take courage from the festival of Pesach. It’s after all, a very old story of faith and hope. It reminds me that just as in the Creation Story, the darkness on the deep was followed by the breathtaking “Let there be light” (Ibid, 3). Slavery was followed by freedom. Redemption followed reduction, liberation replaced agony. The Psalmist (118) says: “From the “metzar”, my distress I called on the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place”. The “metzar” place of distress is literally a narrow, confined space, it’s the same word used for Egypt in Hebrew – Mitzrayim – a prison camp for the Israelites.

I know you will be freed from your places of isolation and quarantine and again enjoy the pleasure of freedom to wander through wide-open spacious places. It will come my friends. So, even if I’m empty, I feel filled with faith and confidence that you will return to me! I also am confident that you will fill the little shules in your homes and hearts with the spirit of this Chag, with care and compassion.

So raise your 4 glasses high this Pesach whether you’re on your own (like me) or with others. Raise them with calm confidence. Raise the, with joy!

Looking forward to seeing you soon.

Your devoted friend,

Caulfield Shule

PS: You may want to hear me in audio on the video, entitled ‘This is your Shule speaking’ – available on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CaulfieldShule

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.