It was an old shul, a warm place that felt like ancient years; the high vaulted ceilings with the Sephardic touch of abnormally large chandeliers and candelabras together bowed their heads to the glass stained windows that glistened when the sun spread its wings on its shoulder, a place that stood out for miles around.
It had a twin sister shul around the block, but sadly that symbol of Jewish survival in the diaspora was replaced. Instead, the new modern goyishe buildings of the times and a declining Jewish population became the new norm. The Jewish children felt no need to stay; parents and grandparents were left behind. A place that once was vibrant, bustling, and the key of their people became a remnant of the past. An embrace that most held so dear had left with new jobs in other towns, and all that was left was the whispering of the wind and the retreating of footsteps elsewhere.
There was something strangely eerie about the place, things one couldn’t explain; at the same time, it felt like it was haunted. It wasn’t the first time I thought a homeless man lived in the walls or corridors while the world slept. The unexplained wildly slamming of doors, running upstairs when no one was there, had gained the regular local Jewish person’s attention, but with no understanding and being in a place of worship, it lagged behind even with one’s tempted curiosity.
Certain underground passages made one wonder, what was this place all about? What was really going on? What did its founders want to keep safe, or hide from view? The old Chevra Kadisha area now becomes forlorn, unused, and locked away. The coatroom, packed with coats, had carpet that carefully covered up a secret door that led to stairs and a floor underneath. A synagogue near the water, was it to escape pogroms, or was being by the water just coincidence? Those thoughts seemed to gnaw at me when I came for Shabbos davening from time to time.
A Shabbaton was a perfect idea, and my friends thought so too. The idea of sleeping over for a group of religious teenage girls was for righteous reasons. It was in helping to be leaders in a Jewish community for one beautiful Shabbos. However, it had the added benefit of exploring the mystery of the haunted shul. I came frequently to pray, but never to explore. I took a group of friends with me to this old shul and ended up sleeping there in the eating room. It was enormous and quite echoie, which added to the flavor of this haunted shul. I was thinking that I would have an incredible Shabbos, and maybe I might see a shul ghost and find out if the rumors were true.
It was after an incredible Friday night meal, helping out the rabbi and his community, that we felt exhausted, and we decided to go to sleep. It would be a bit uncomfortable, but sleeping on the floor with sleeping bags started to sound a lot better than having to walk anywhere. I rearranged my sleeping space to get comfortable and was almost nodding off when my friend with the wavy orange hair tapped me on the shoulder. I said to her, “What do you want? What’s the matter? I’m a bit tired, is it important?”
She said nervously, trying to whisper but her voice betrayed her and it started climbing up towards a higher pitch, “There is a man that comes to me in my dream, he has large black shoes and he is bothering me.”
Sitting up more relaxed, I said to her, “Really? It is just a silly dream. Go to bed! If anyone is bothering you let them come to me.” I put on my most motherly voice, even though I was a teen as well, and only a few years older than she. Happy that it worked, I got comfortable again, sure enough, my friend went straight to sleep.
Did I really realize what I was saying? I didn’t realize that there would be harm in saying it. After all, it seemed to make my friend go back to sleep. My pensive thoughts and words to comfort myself didn’t change what was foreshadowing what was to come. I went back to sleep, and the man with the black shoes came for me. I heard clickity clackity, clickity, clackity louder and louder like a drum.
It was wild drumming that was out of control that banged until my ears felt sore. I tried to catch my breath, my heart started playing its own rhythm of fear because I knew he was searching and coming for me. Who was he? What was he? All I knew was I had to run and get away from the drumming.
I was thinking about what was going on? I knew it was a dream but even for a dream, it did not conform to the usual rules. It didn’t seem even dream-like. The black shoes came closer and closer to me, and I felt cornered with nowhere to go in my own dream! My eyes looked upward and I saw a man’s familiar face. “Who was he?” I thought. “Why do I recognize him?” He looked like he was in his fifties. He looked sad, alone, and seemed very broken. I was glad that I forced myself to wake up. The next day I shrugged the dream away and enjoyed the day with my friends.
My friend had a good night’s sleep, and I thought that was the end of the man with the black shoes. Perhaps this shul ghost had rules to stay in his shul. Whatever and whoever this shul ghost was, he wasn’t going to follow me home, or was he?
I went back to the place we were staying, and again I had this dream. It was the same man who looked like he was in his fifties, sad, alone, broken, and then he started talking very loudly to me, “I am Betzalel the son of Sally. Nobody said Kaddish for me. Please tell the rabbi to say Kaddish for me. I woke up and shrugged the dream away hoping it was just a silly dream, and I got busy with my day. The next few nights I kept having the same repetitive dream. Until one night, I finally said to this man, “If I tell the Rabbi to say Kaddish for you, will you leave me alone?”
This stubborn sad, broken soul said a very emotional, “Yes. Please tell the rabbi to say kaddish for me. I am Betzalel the son of Sally.”I suddenly remembered this old lady Sally from the shul, so I asked the rabbi to ask her.
The rabbi told me that Sally told him, “Yes. We forgot to say Kaddish for my son.”
The shul decided to have a whole ceremony for any soul that wasn’t prayed for would be a part of the kaddish ceremony, and sure enough, it was written about in the local newspaper.
The man with the black shoes never came back to bother me, and it seems he crossed over the threshold from this world to the next, and he went to stand by G-d as most souls do.