Today is my mother’s birthday. She died during the intermediate days of Pesach, just sixteen days shy of 93. At 93, you don’t have too many contemporaries left. In her final months, she lamented her dwindling friendship circles and emotionally mourned the death of close friends these past several months.
The friends she did have left were loyal and compassionate. Some she knew for over sixty years, others for far less. Given our time on this earth, none of this is unusual. What does tell a story, however, is their shared history.
They were children of the depression, came of age during World War II and FDR’s New Deal, and lived to see unparalleled advancements in technology (my 92-year-old mother was able to FaceTime with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the United States and Israel, even though they often saw only her forehead).
Both of my parents were from a generation that built institutions. In many ways, they lived the mythical American Dream — upward mobility, houses instead of apartments, opportunities for their kids. They also saw value in community. It wasn’t enough for them to self-improve, they needed grounding in their new neighborhoods.
None of this came without some sacrifice. They worked long hours in their businesses and other professions and put a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hard-earned dollars into building synagogues, summer camps, JCCs and more. Say what you will about today’s Jewish institutions — if they hadn’t been there for me, my siblings and our friends when we were growing up, I would guess that our diverse Jewish commitments would be much different than they are today — or possibly wouldn’t exist at all.
Which brings me back to my mom. The friends she had in her old age were primarily (although not exclusively) synagogue friends. The are the ones she and my dad worked with to enrich our Conservative synagogue in suburban Chicago, who supported and encouraged our involvment in USY and pushed us to go to Ramah; who enabled us to go to Israel for the first time and who instilled a sense of Kol Yisrael Areivem Zeh BaZeh, that all of the Jewish people are responsible for each other. These sixty-year friendships were deep and profound, and they would not have been possible without the shul.
There are many who decry the synagogues our parents’ generation built. I’ve heard all too often that “I didn’t leave my synagogue, my synagogue left me,” or “Things just aren’t the way they used to be.” Well guess what? They’re not supposed to be.
We all grow as people — religiously, philosophically, emotionally. But if it wasn’t for the sacrifices this greatest generation made to build a synagogue “you’ll never step foot into,” that growth would have been far less rewarding and far more stifling. We can only hope the contributions we’ve made will add as much to our own children’s development.
Happy Birthday, Mom — and thanks.