An empty synagogue in the snow

On any given Saturday morning, I wake up and go to synagogue.

Last Shabbat morning — January 23, 2016 — I made sure to get out earlier than usual, because I was worried about our custodian making it there on time.

It took me longer than usual to traverse the half block from my house to the synagogue, even though there was no traffic on the street I have to cross. The snow was everywhere. On the street. On the trees. In the sky. In the air. Coming at me horizontally through the wind. But I made it to my destination and had an hour to prepare before services. I took up a shovel and made a safe path from the parking lot to the door. The lot was not plowed, but maybe that would change. I unlocked the doors, turned off the alarm, and turned on the lights (I have always accepted the Rabbinical Assembly position from 1950 that permits the use of electricity on Shabbat for turning on and off lights and the like). I made sure the sanctuary was ready for services. I took out the food for the collation. I set up the beverages.

Then, with about a half hour before services, I looked at the entryway and doubted for a second whether I had actually shoveled a path to the door. The snow was coming down so fast that there was no trace of my path or footprints. So I shoveled a pathway again, and then settled down with a little food and drink and studied some Mishnah in preparation for the teaching I give at the beginning of the service. Then it was 9 a.m., and no one was there. I checked the entryway again and decided to shovel again. Then I sat down, studied some more, and ate and drank some more. Still no one there. I went into the sanctuary, put on my tallis and davened.

Then I put it away, cleaned up the collation, put the perishables back into the refrigerator, turned off the lights, turned the alarm back on, locked the doors, and made my way back across the white to home.

While there have been other times that snow has interfered with a Shabbat morning service, this was the first time that I found myself completely alone in the synagogue on Shabbat. I was not upset that no one came. The weather was extremely hazardous, and I would not have wanted people to risk accidents when the media and government authorities were advising them to stay at home. But as I sat there alone that Shabbat morning, I reflected on the nature of our enterprise in the organized Jewish community. I was met with a dark vision of a future where we open synagogues for prayer where no one comes to pray.

I was reminded of the story of the Baal Shem Tov that Elie Wiesel recounted in “The Gates of the Forest.” When a miracle was needed, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and recite a specific prayer, and then a miracle was granted. When the Baal Shem Tov had died, his disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, went to the same place in the forest and recited the same prayer, but he did not know how to light the fire. When the Maggid of Mezrich died, his disciple, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, also went to the forest to seek God’s mercy, and prayed to God that while he knew neither how to light the fire nor the words of the Baal Shem Tov’s prayer, at least he knew where to go, and he hoped that would be sufficient. When Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich, had to pray for mercy, he sat in his chair and prayed: “Master of the Universe! I don’t know how to light the fire nor the words of the prayer nor the site in the forest. May my memory of the story be sufficient.”

Will we reach a point where we open our synagogues but will have forgotten the words to say? Or have we already reached the point where our people have forgotten the location of the synagogue?

While the memory of synagogues may be enough to kindle divine mercy, it will not sustain our communities. We must recommit ourselves to learning the liturgy and language of the prayer book, so our ancient words not become forgotten incantations. We must retrain our feet (and our cars) to attend synagogue on Shabbat and make our communities our own (weather permitting). The word “synagogue” — beit knesset in Hebrew — means house of gathering. It loses its essence if no one gathers within its walls.

We must, then, re-envision the nature of the synagogue so that we better serve the needs of the members of our communities. The synagogue is the people’s institution; it is not a holy temple sitting atop a mountain overlooking a city from above. For our communities to survive, we must have a vibrant center to draw us together. We must reform the synagogue into a true Jewish community center, where we can continue to sew and reap blessings.

Something to do once the snow thaws.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.