I know many Jews will not enter a church. I am not one of them. I’m not into the grand tour of great cathedrals but I’ve certainly gone to the Duomo in Milan and other of the world’s architecturally brilliant churches. I won’t tell anyone else what to do but I’m confessing (maybe not the most appropriate word!) that this is something that I’ve done. I don’t pray in a church. But I will attend in special circumstances. Today was one of those special circumstances. I went to a funeral at an African American church in Newark NJ, my own hometown.
Let me explain.
Our suburban New Jersey shul is reached by crossing a busy street with the pretty name Pleasant Valley Way. It is also a dangerous street. One day some years ago my less than always cautious husband was jaywalking to get to shul when a woman called out to him. Please don’t ever do that. She went on to explain that her own husband was killed on Sukkot crossing in the same spot where my husband now stood. Indeed she spoke the truth and my husband has never jaywalked there again.
But the distance between lights is fairly long and the township, in its wisdom, positioned a crossing guard to make sure that the Jews were able to safely, and legally, reach their shuls in the morning……..and return after services.
The crossing guard turned out to be a lovely lovely man. He always had a cheerful countenance. And whether the greeting was about the weather (often) or having new great-grandchildren (less often), our friend David could be counted on to be friendly, agreeable, helpful and just plain nice. He shepherded Jews of two shuls safely to their minyanim. He became a chaver to all.
He was also super reliable. More so than the proverbial postal service. He was there no matter what the weather, sometimes protecting himself from the elements by keeping warm or cool in his car until the next pedestrian needed his steerage. But always always there. And never complaining.
With no sense of foreboding at all, the two shuls were brought closer together by David. It was agreed that this man who had safely steered us across the way on Pleasant Valley for many years, should be honored. And so it was!
A township proclamation was signed naming that hot summer Shabbat, this past summer, David Irby Day.
The two shuls hosted an elaborate kiddush on the lawn of one of them and daveners from both congregations were urged to attend, along with the family members of the guest of honor. And come they all did. Hordes of people, suburban Jews, and their neighbors from Newark. A happy gathering. Kavod!
The guest of honor, David, had a blessed life. All he lacked was a son! He was the proud father of four daughters. He was the even prouder grandfather of five granddaughters. He was the extraordinarily proud great-grandfather of a baby girl. He was a sportsman and sports fan. He wanted a boy to take fishing and to games. He borrowed nephews. He loved his girls deeply, starting with his wife of 46 years and through the ten young ladies. But he was never to know a great-grandson.
Last Sunday, at the age of 67, David Irby didn’t wake up. Today was his funeral and, yes, we went.
The church was packed. The emotion was raw. The singing was beautiful and passionate. The speeches were heart wrenching. This was a well loved man. People were shattered but their faith was guiding them to be strong.
We were onlookers. We could not participate in the prayer services. We could do little more than hug the strong new widow who endeavored to make us feel comfortable.
The ritual was foreign. The congregation participated with gusto. We were respectful observers, As one would expect Jews in a church to be.
But was this building born a church? I thought not! There were stained glass windows, several of them with Stars of David. I looked up and back. There it was. A women’s section, upstairs. When we left I saw what I had not noticed when we arrived: the classic unadorned frame construction of a Newark shul. Construction I knew so well. Newark was a city of many many shuls. This part of the city was already not Jewish when I was growing up in the 40’s and 50’s. Jews had migrated to other neighborhoods. To the South Ward and places called Clinton Hill and Weequahic. I would never have had a reason to go to Jones Street in those days. Today I did, and even though I was in a church, the voices of my own ancestors called out to me.
May David rest in peace. Our entire community shall miss him.