It was the sight of the shoes that was so moving. There were Crocs, black loafers, burgundy loafers, rebbeshe shich, Rockports, shoes without socks… and the socks. I had never seen so many designs and so many colors. It was mindboggling. I am not the overly emotional type, but truth be told, I was almost moved to tears when I saw all of those different shoes… in shul.
A little background: Other than the occasional chasunah, I am rarely in Monsey. Besides a few of the landmarks that I still remember from my years as a bochur, such as the storied Vizhnitz Bais Medrash complex where you can always get a minyan (and a pastry with a coffee), I never really got to know the town. Last week, I had to be in Monsey, and as shkiah was approaching, I realized that I had to find a minyan for Mincha quickly. I was driving on Grandview, when I noticed a bochur walking on the side of the road, holding a black hat. I asked him, “Do you know where I can find a minyan for Mincha near here?”
He asked me, “Before shkiah?”
When I answered affirmatively, he directed me to go to “Scheiner’s.”
“It is on Forshay Avenue. Make a left on Forshay. You can’t miss it. Just look for the place where all the cars are going in and out…”
I did just that, and sure enough, I encountered what appeared to be two very full dirt parking lots on either side of Forshay. I had mazel and found a spot. I then made my way to what I thought was a shul, but in truth was much more. It appeared to be a sprawling complex of converted small houses and a hodgepodge of large tents in the back that were able to house multiple minyanim at once. “Beis Medrash Ohr Chaim,” the sign said. I should have realized that this place was unique when, as I walked up to one of buildings, music reached my ears. Which shul greets you with music?
Of Being Comfortable in One’s Shoes
Then, what did it for me were the shoes.
As I found a minyan for Mincha, I looked around. Many people look at faces or perhaps head coverings. I chose to look at the shoes. It was just amazing. The diversity in that place was beyond belief. Every type of observant Jew was there, but that wasn’t the clincher. The clincher was that they all looked like they felt at home. Like it was their own place.
After finishing Mincha, while waiting for Maariv (there were plenty of early Maariv minyanim and late Mincha minyanim going on, as this shul caters to the many minhagim and shitos in zemanim that are as varied as the clientele), I took a walk through the various botei medrash and, aside from the shoes, what amazed me was the diversity of the baalei tefillah. It was the first time in a long time that I had seen so many different types of (mainly) bochurim davening for the amud: with hats and without hats, with t-shirts and with button-down shirts, with Crocs, sneakers and dress shoes. The sight of a kid with a chassidishe beeber hat and colorful Nikes was something I had never witnessed before. Each boy was davening for the amud, being motzie the tzibbur, and clearly felt comfortable and at home doing it.
Had I been a decade or two younger, I might have had a different reaction to this kind of assortment and non-judgmental atmosphere, but before going further, let me contrast this with an experience I had earlier the same week.
I spent a few days of the remaining bein hazemanim in Hunter, New York. Hunter is theoretically in the Catskills, but it is an entirely different experience than the Catskills off Rt. 17. I was zoche to daven in the Hunter Synagogue, a shul that has been continuously functioning in the same building and location for well over a hundred years.
I have this strange “minhag” when I enter an unfamiliar shul of reading the “In Memoriam” plaques. They always tell a story. Usually, at least in the old American shuls that are still in existence, the story is a familiar yet sad one. It is the story of Yidden who came to America seeking a new, more prosperous life. These Yidden invested time and effort into their shuls and eventually died, leaving behind a plaque put up by their children. There are so many Sadies and Gertrudes, Morrises and Maxes on those boards. I always wonder, “What happened to their kids?”
The answer, unfortunately, is well-known. They bought “In Memoriam” plaques for their parents, gave a few dollars to the shul, and, if their parents were lucky, they came to say Kaddish on the yahrtzeit. Other than that, the vast majority assimilated into the American melting pot, and it is very likely that nearly all of those people on those large yahrtzeit boards, who died in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, have descendants who are not even Jewish.
The main reason, of course, is that there was little Jewish education. Another reason, however, is that the children simply didn’t feel comfortable in their parents’ shul. Yiddish was the spoken language, and these kids, who attended public school, didn’t feel comfortable in a setting that was so different from the life they were experiencing in the American melting pot. They felt uncomfortable in shul. They didn’t understand the meaning of the tefillos. Many of them didn’t know exactly when to stand up and when to sit down. They were not understood by their “greener” parents and eventually just stopped coming.
In New York, during those turbulent years of the early 20th century, there were great Jewish leaders who realized that if the youth didn’t feel comfortable in shul, they would be lost. That is how the Young Israel movement was established. In Young Israel, the language spoken by the rabbi, in his sermons, was English. Young people were encouraged to lead the davening and lain from the Sefer Torah, which was almost looked upon as sacrilegious in the existing shuls that were only populated by adults, while the youth either slept or went to the movies…
The Rest Will Come Later
When I walked into Scheiner’s, or Beis Medrash Ohr Chaim as it is officially called, I realized that there was something unique about this shul complex that not only couldn’t be dismissed, but, perhaps more importantly, needs to be emulated. Every person there felt at home. Especially the youth.
Yes, an argument can be made – and some time ago I myself might have made it – that the kedusha of a shul demands a certain dress code, and kids (and adults) need to know that not “everything goes” when it comes to Yiddishkeit. In a theoretical sense, these arguments may be correct, but we are not living in regular times. There are many difficult winds blowing in the frum community today.
There is a well-known aphorism that says, “Don’t be right. Be smart.” When it comes to chinuch and our methods of interacting with our youth, it is important that we understand that not always do we have to be right. We also must be clever. Imagine if those Yidden in the ‘20s and ‘30s who lived in hundreds of communities across the United States and Canada where they built beautiful shuls that eventually closed down because there were no young people to take them over had opened their hearts and their shuls to the youth in a way that made them feel at home. Each generation has their definition of what “at home” feels like, but the common denominator is that youth have to feel comfortable. They must feel that a shul is a safe, happy and accepting place where they are truly valued and understood.
That is the key to keeping them involved. The rest will come later.
Our older generation – whether we are parents, rabbeim, teachers or grandparents – cannot be complacent. We cannot only look at the successful youth who are shteiging away without Crocs and colorful socks. Indeed, they are wonderful. Of course, they are our pride and joy. But what Scheiner’s and the caring Yid who created such a remarkable mokom Torah utefillah has taught us all is that every child and every Yid is our pride and joy. If we invest effort into creating welcoming, safe and non-judgmental mekomos of Torah and tefillah, we will avoid the catastrophe of the 21st century manifestation of the “Hunter Syndrome” and see nachas from all of our children.