It would only be right and fitting if I followed my own advice and began at the beginning, but that would mean figuring out where, when, or what is ‘the beginning’ in this particular situation. What I’ll do instead for starters is re-print my article, which appeared in the second edition of ‘Musar Schmooze,’ a new magazine from our shul.
That’s when it really got to me, when I saw the pictures of the opening of Mishkan Shoshana, the new Sephardic beit knesset next to Maalot David. They’ve been open two minutes and they have pews! (at least for the men and women on the main floor; the second women’s section in the balcony has Keter chairs) Do our Sephardic neighbors have more money than we do, or do they care more about how their houses of worship look?
Mussar Avicha has been around for how many years, and we still have seats that look like they were borrowed or stolen from a homeless shelter. Would you want one in your apartment? Would you take one if it were offered to you? Probably not, unless you were living in the underpass near the C.B.S. So why is our shul filled with chairs that nobody else would want?
We did discuss the matter several years ago, if you remember. But there were objections. (There are always objections!) Because of the poor design of the women’s section, putting in pews there would significantly reduce the number of seats – enough for a normal Shabbat, but not enough for the larger turnout during the Hagim.
And if you buy a seat, do you get your name engraved on it, so it’s really YOUR seat? What if you have a three-year old child? Would you have to purchase your tot a seat now? And if you don’t, and someone else has bought the seat next to you, what happens on that glorious day when your kid can actually sit still in shul?
Yes, there are issues, but there are solutions. Perhaps instead of pews, some comfortable chairs for everybody, possibly with racks underneath to store things? Or pews in the men’s section and comfortable chairs in the women’s section?
Some will say that there are other physical plant issues that need dealing with. The rest rooms look like they were taken from a gas station on one of the highways. The lobby? Say no more. The air-conditioning and ventilation? We’ll never please everyone anyway. All of the above are true, but nothing, NOTHING makes more of an impression – for good or bad – than the actual appearance of the shul itself.
We have a small but committed membership, a dynamic leadership, an energetic rabbi. Even a magazine! It’s time to pool our resources and make the facility look the way a shul should look, as an appropriate place for our tefillot.
I wrote this piece, not expecting much to happen; if nothing else, I could vent a bit and express my frustration. Shortly after Chanukah – when the magazine became available – Rabbi Ezra Friedman approached me and said he was working on a solution, trying to find a way to raise the money. Was my article a catalyst for what followed, or would it have happened anyway because the time was ripe? Honestly, I don’t know; I don’t want to take undue credit – like the rooster that assumes he’s responsible for the sun rising every day.
And then it seemed that there might be a possibility (like the light around the bend at the end of the tunnel) that something would actually happen. There would be a shul meeting; there would be a committee. Would we get off our collective duffs and finally do something?
Let’s start with three things that were not going to happen. 1) My services on a committee would not be requested. 2) Maintaining my sanity and good cheer would prevent me from attending any such shul meeting. 3) I would not be holding my breath while deliberations were underway. Whatever would happen would happen.
The meeting did take place, and somehow those assembled agreed to proceed with a somewhat revised plan to purchase new pews. What I had not realized was that the original plan was doomed to failure. We were supposed to fork over money, which would entitle us to the use of the seat for five glorious years, but if we wanted to sit in it over the High Holidays, we would have to pay again. Some deal!
The new arrangements gave us the use of the seat (supposedly with our name on it) for twenty years with no additional payments beyond the small yearly membership. Plus there was a discount for buying more than one seat. Oh, and for those whose needs truly exceeded their resources, further arrangements could be made with the Rabbi. Now you’re talking! Suddenly, all the objections, all the kvetches seemed less important, more manageable. There would be enough seats for the ladies – at least the ones who ‘belong’ and show up once in awhile (not my Barbara, whose philosophical differences far exceed the issues at hand). The ladies who wander in off the street once a year for shofar-blowing? There’s a limit to what we can provide.
It’s one thing to vote for something; it’s another to pay for it. That was my concern: would we collectively have the wherewithal to make this project a go? Kibbutz Lavi was asking something like 200,000 NIS to turn our sanctuary into a thing of beauty, and I wasn’t sure we had that kind of spending money. Whether it was a brilliant strategic coup or just plain dumb luck, I can’t say, but the committee’s plan worked perfectly. Show up at the shul at a specified time, checkbook in hand, and pick out the seat(s)you want. Don’t delay; seating (as we all know) is limited. If you don’t pony up for your favorite spot, somebody else will, and then where will you sit?
The Sunday night in question, Barbara and I had plans to meet Natania for dinner. I told those-who-needed-to-know that I would show up in shul Wed. evening (which happened to be Yom Hazicharon/Yom Haatzmaut) with an envelope and save me a seat. Which they did, as close to where I’ve been the last twelve years as was possible, given the somewhat different proposed seating arrangement.
Shortly thereafter, a chart was posted with all the seats that had been purchased. Going like hot cakes! By the next seat sale evening, almost all of the seats in the men’s section and a lot of those in the women’s section were taken. We indeed had raised the cash to send to Lavi; our pews would be on the way. First we were told before the High Holidays; then the seats would arrive sometime after Tisha B’Av; and then, out of the blue, they would be ready next week (this was about a month ago). What could go wrong?
If someone were to compile a list of the ten dumbest questions ever, my nominee would be What could go wrong? The answer is invariably anything and everything. A week and a half before our new pews were to arrive, we walked into shul on a Friday night and discovered that there were sizable holes in the drop-down ceiling. Some of the guys had moved their seats, and the main entrance to the women’s section had to be closed. Why the ceiling collapsed at this moment in time, I cannot begin to explain, but I know one thing: it wasn’t because the roof was leaking. This is Israel; it hasn’t rained here in three months, and it won’t for another three. Be that as it may, those-in-charge had a week and a half to get the ceiling repaired and, while we’re at it, get the sanctuary painted. The following Shabbat, services were held downstairs in the original shul, now the social hall. Sat. night, a lot of us pitched in and brought all the movable furniture downstairs.
Where’s my shtender? For the last eleven plus years, I have had the use of a shtender (a portable, adjustable reading platform) that someone had left in the shul. What to do? I didn’t want to leave it behind to an uncertain fate; it might get tossed along with some of the chairs that nobody would want. Should I take it home with me? I already had one, courtesy of a friend who had left the shul. That one is sitting in my office, its main function being a place for Lucky to nap on or sit and watch the birds outside.
A second one would be one too many, plus I’d have to schlep it home. But I took it anyway, not that Barbara was in any way thrilled with my decision or the unnecessary piece of furniture. By the following Shabbat, the ceiling in the shul as fixed, the place painted, and the beautiful new pews had been installed.
End of story? What else could go wrong? (Refer to my answer several paragraphs above.) It’s kinda warm in here; what’s with the air-conditioning? Somehow, with all the work that was done, with all the dust that was created, our mazgan units got messed up. By Shabbat afternoon, everyone was downstairs again. And when I returned Wed. night for Nachum’s gemara shiur, we were still downstairs, although there were technicians busily at work to resolve the problem.
Which they did. By Friday night (that’s last Fri. night, in case you’re keeping track), everything seemed to be in good order. Now we could all relax, because what else could go wrong? Shabbat morning everything was hunky-dory. No worries! At least until 7PM when it was time for mincha, etc. We arrived at the beit knesset, only to find out that neither the air-conditioning nor the lights were working. Welcome back to the social hall.
Later that night, a thought occurred to me: What will David do tomorrow if there’s no lights or a/c in the sanctuary? Our friend David B. has served as the shul’s liaison with Kibbutz Lavi from our first aborted efforts to replace the seats. Even though the kibbutz has a sterling reputation, having provided furniture for over 5,000 batei knesset all over the world, they dropped the ball as far as we are concerned. Nothing catastrophic, but here the wood wasn’t sanded properly, and there the varnish was missing, and who knows what else.
The kibbutz was sending someone down to meet with David on Sunday and do whatever is needed to make us happy. It’s only a two-hour drive from where they are near Tiberias down to Ma’ale Adumim. I shudder to think what would have happened if there had been a problem with the furniture they provided for our old shul, Beth Aaron, in Teaneck, NJ.
Unfortunately, there’s one issue that Lavi can’t help us with: space, or the lack thereof. You can see from the new arrangements how cramped our quarters have become. But what choices do we have? It’s either too many rows for the space we have, or too few seats for the people we have. Take your choice.
I will be heading back later for Nachum’s Wed. night gemara shiur, and then tomorrow morning we will be heading up north for a weekend with The Levines. I’m hopeful that, by the time we return, everything will be straightened out at Musar Avicha. After all, what else can go wrong?