The Toyota on the Synagogue Steps

Just about a week and a half ago, an elderly man drove his car through the bushes in front of my synagogue, onto the steps leading up to the main entrance on the service road of Queens Boulevard. It’s not clear what the cause was, although because he was driving a Toyota, his claim that the car accelerated on him suddenly seems (pun fully intended) to have caught traction. I don’t know. Actually, I wasn’t there at the time, and didn’t think all that much of it.

Something about this incident, however, caught the imagination of the local media. In fact, I first heard about it late at night, during our local eleven o’clock news. My wife heard the anchor say "Forest Hills Jewish Center" and then we learned what had happened earlier in the day. It was such a non-story that no one in my synagogue had even called to tell me- and believe me, they call me for a lot less!

But once the local news got a hold of the story and sent a camera crew, the tabloid newspapers got it, at least one national news network picked it up, it was all over the internet news sources…. You get the picture. Once it’s out there in 2010, it’s really out there, and it goes viral. I’m still kind of surprised that no one took a video and put it on YouTube… My synagogue could have been the "next big thing!"

If Andy Warhol were still around, he would say that this falls into that "fifteen minutes of fame" theory that he had. My synagogue is hardly unknown, but more quickly than anyone could have imagined, I was getting e-mails and phone calls- and a ridiculous variety of jokes, some more funny than others- relating to this incident that I hadn’t even known about. Things like "Hey, I heard they’re so anxious to hear you speak that they’re driving up the steps into your synagogue!" I’ll spare you the rest- you get the idea.

It goes without saying that, had the elderly gentleman driving the car been hurt, this would have been a very different story indeed. But I find myself amazed- naively, I’m sure- that the whole episode gathered so much attention in the first place. Of course, the fact that the man was driving a Toyota enabled everyone to immediately group the episode into an easily identifiable category- even though no one really knows what happened. But beyond that- the only really significant piece of the story, beyond the damage to our bushes, was that no one was hurt. That area of our property gets heavy pedestrian traffic, and Queens Boulevard itself has a notorious reputation as a dangerous thoroughfare for pedestrians. But when all is said and done, none of that, thank God, happened. Just a few crushed bushes, and a lot of pretty silly e-mails rushing through cyberspace.

In my line of work we work so hard trying to figure out what will capture people’s imaginations and get their attention… Now I know. We’ll just drive over our bushes onto the steps of the synagogue, take out the Torah, and start reading. Ezra and Nehemiah would probably have approved…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.