S. J. Schwaidelson

The plaques, Boss! The Plaques!

Some days just turn out to be sadder than others, and today was one of those days. No, nothing monumental happened today. It’s not an anniversary of any sort. It’s just a day with a confluence of sadness.

The loss of Adas Israel in Duluth, Minnesota has become even more heartbreaking. No, it was not a hate-crime. No, it was not a right-wing nutball with an anti-Semitic twist in his brain. It was far more tragic that that: it was a homeless guy with a long history of mental health issues trying to find shelter on a windy, cold night.

He was hiding in the structure beside the synagogue that was supposed to become, in a few weeks, a sukkah. This week, Matthew Amiot sought shelter there, probably not knowing what it was. Where it was supposed to provide shelter, it could not, in Minnesota weather, so he lit a fire. And when he could not control the fire, he said he spit on it to put it out, and when he couldn’t put it out, he walked away. At 2:15 in the morning. To seek shelter elsewhere.

The only hate in this crime is the disdain we feel toward those who are unable to care for themselves. Matthew Amiot was homeless. His family knew he was homeless. They knew Matthew had mental health issues. Apparently lots of people knew Matthew had mental health issues because he had a long arrest record full of petty crimes. But there he was, on the street. Seeking shelter in a skeleton structure of a sukkah.

Matthew Amiot is a victim of that fire. Buildings can be rebuilt. Human beings aren’t that lucky. What is wrong with Mr. Amiott cannot be fixed with a hot meal and a shower any more than taking shelter in a shukkah can protect him from the elements. The help Mr. Amiott needs is not available to him. And without resources, it never will be.

Who will stand up for Matthew Amiott?

At the same time as we, the Jewish Community of Minnesota, are mourning the loss of Adas Israel, I am mourning the loss of my own home shul in New York. Today, that sadness arrived in Minnesota via USPS.

Several months ago, I heard that my home shul, Temple Beth-El of Bellmore, the place I had my bat mitzvah, my wedding, and many of my high school misadventures had lost the battle and would be closing. I won’t go into all the details of why, mostly because I’m not there and cannot offer a cogent opinion on the matter, but I will unashamedly tell you that the very first thought I had was, What about the plaques?

Memorial plaques. Those ubiquitous things that line the walls of many a synagogue. We had six at Temple Beth-El, including my parents, who specifically asked their plaques be put there, in the shul they considered home. When their names were installed beneath those of my four grandparents, their loss suddenly was very real, very concrete. My cousin went over to take a picture so we should know they were in the right place. They were. And in time, I saw them for myself. It was bittersweet. They were all in my home shul, but that was no longer my shul. And now, that shul I have always called home is closing its doors and the only thing I could think about was: What about the plaques?

I was not alone. Lots of people were asking. To make a long story short, the plaques are here, in front of me, sitting on the kitchen island.

In a bit, I will take them over to what is now my home shul (before it was just my shul) and they will be housed with my husband’s plaque. We don’t hang them like art over at Beth Jacob; we only hang them up the week of the yahrzeit.

Seeing their names on the appropriate days will make me sad, but glad that they remain all together. And this year, when I cannot get to the cemetery in New York for kever avot, to visit the graves of my ancestors, at least I have them all here on the kitchen island for a moment. With rocks. Including a green one. Just like at the cemetery.

I’ll go over to see Ziggy next Sunday and tell him the story of the plaques. He would agree I did the right thing to bring them here to be with his. Not like there was ever a question.

When I think about the losses of this year, I must admit the gains were pretty good. Can’t complain. But I will still feel the loss of my home shul, and even the loss of Adas Israel deep in my heart. I know they are buildings, but as Temple Beth-El was central to my growing up, Adas Israel raised a whole lotta kids over 119 years. I would guess they are feeling bereft in ways they never thought possible. My heart goes out to that community as they struggle to decide what to do next.

May all their memories forever be for blessings.

About the Author
New York born, but living in Minnesota, S. J. Schwaidelson is a political blogger and novelist. Her own blog, The Wifely Person Speaks, appears weekly and is followed world-wide. Information about her novels, THE POMEGRANATE, DREAM DANCER and LINGUA GALACTICA, can all be found on Goodreads and at Amazon.
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