To recapture what they had, your shul doesn’t need the flags. What it really needs is the soldiers
ON a recent visit to the “old neighborhoods” of Montreal, shkiah was fast approaching and with it the realization that I wouldn’t make it back home for Minchah. So I davened in a nearby shul.
I write this as if it were a bedieved because I was out of time, but really, I was thrilled at the opportunity. I have an obsession with such places.
You know the type, especially if you live out of town. A once-proud building designed, erected, and funded by Jews who believed that this shul would be the answer, the center, the response to what they had seen: those shuls built in the ’60s would host not just events and shiurim, but also bar mitzvahs and weddings.
It would be home.
If you know these shuls, then you know that they have a certain smell, maybe of the old carpet in a coatroom that might or might not still have saloon doors, and they have a certain décor: lots of brass plaques and, if you’re lucky, perhaps a corridor lined with black-and-white pictures of stern-looking past shul presidents.
The main chapel features stained glass and mahogany furniture and talleisim hanging on hooks in the back and siddurim from before ArtScroll was invented. You look out at the huge expanse of shul, all the way to the large flags in the front, and your heart breaks a bit at the sight of the people: older men in windbreakers sitting in the same seats they’ve always occupied, like the last chess pieces on the board.
I find something so real and holy in these shuls, an air of weightiness and sanctity. And I wonder if we, with our beautiful new shuls complete with bursting seforim shelves and massive hot-water urns, our crowd-funded expansions and mikvaos with towel warmers, can match that air of simple shul-reverence.
What makes a Jew love his shul?
Maybe it’s this. The Baal Shem Tov would speak of the great joy created in Heaven when a Yid in the marketplace, completely immersed in selling, negotiating, schlepping or packing, looks up and sees that it’s grown dark. “Oy!” he exclaims, “s’iz shoin tzeit tzu davenen Minchah” — and he hurries off to pray.
Those shuls, those Yidden, were of a generation whose day was probably not spent in yeshivah or kollel, but they were shul Yidden. Minchah-Maariv, maybe with a shiur in Mishnayos or Ein Yaakov, was the high point of the day. A Yid needs ruchniyus, and since they didn’t have the blessings with which we are blessed — daf yomi apps, click here for lomdus — all day long, whether they knew it or not, as they measured, calculated, or talked up an insurance policy, they were craving those moments.
You can feel that craving still in the old shuls. These throwbacks to the golden era of the synagogue, a few still standing fiercely even as thirsty developers circle, tell the story of the people who once filled the pews.
Listen and you will hear the crackle of mesirus nefesh, the echo of shoes stamping off snow, of people saying “see you in shul,” because there was just the shul.
(Also, even those wealthy enough to have a second home — and there were those too — weren’t always running, with Pesach here, Succos there, upstate in between. They belonged to the shul, and so the shul belonged to them too.)
Today we have it so much better. The workday schedule has changed, you can learn so much more, you can choose your minyan based on pace, nusach, and style.
We’re oh, so blessed. Is that our fault?
Two years ago, a rav made a comment to me that still burns. Back during the first Covid lockdown, Erev Pesach 2020 didn’t allow for traditional mechiras chometz, so poskim created a portal for the transaction to be conducted online.
The quick innovation was impressive and it was necessary, but this rav told me that he feared we’d lost something precious. “I have balabatim in my shul whom I see every Shabbos of the year. They wish me Gut Shabbos after davening, with warm handshakes, but we never really speak. They resist it — they’re not all that interested in sharing, in asking, in hearing.
“But once a year,” he continued, “they had no choice. They had to come into my study and make eye contact, and while I shuffled papers and looked for the pen, they might talk a bit. Business was up or down. The wife wasn’t happy, she wished he would learn a bit more. The teenage son was changing and it scared him. Sometimes, that was enough and new doors would open.
“Now, with mechiras chometz moved online,” he said, “that’s gone too.”
As he predicted, some (but not all) of those balabatim never came back to sell their chometz — the websites have no wait time, there is no expectation of a check and thankfully, there is no conversation.
What he was really saying was that, in many cases, shuls have slipped into the role of service provider. And, as is the rule with service, if you want to keep your customers, then you’d better match the market’s best price/zeman/style/vibe.
But it’s not true! A shul is not a service provider, but a relationship like any other.
The taam, the flavor in those old shuls, came from the people who showed up, who trudged and schlepped and stamped the speckled tile floors with their personality and character and minor meshigasen, creating a tzibbur.
Money is the cheapest thing to give an institution, the easiest way to feel like you’re giving back, but it’s not what makes a shul. What makes a shul is the guy who comes to ensure there’s a minyan even though he already davened. The one who shows up to a new shiur to help make it a success.
The great rabbanim of generations past probably serviced balabatim less learned than do the rabbanim of today. But learned or not, those people showed up.
It’s the fragrance of those stalwart, faithful shul-goers that lingers in cavernous buildings in fading neighborhoods across North America. If we try, maybe we can bottle some of that up and maybe it will pervade our shuls, our lives.
To recapture what they had, your shul doesn’t need the flags. What it really needs is the soldiers.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)
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