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Recollections of Janine Sherr      

On Lincoln Square, Loss, and Love

In just a few days, Lincoln Square Synagogue, center of Modern Orthodox Jewry in Manhattan, will be taking up residence in its new location, only one block south of its present building.

It will have existed in its present location for over forty-two years.

And I, a relative newcomer to the community, having lived in New York only eight years, confess to feeling a bit saddened by the impending move. So I can only imagine how those who have considered this shul their second home for forty-two years must feel. One gentleman told me he cried.

When I think of our shul, I can see the “Chaz”, Chazan Sherwood Goffin, chanting the shemone esre in his stirring voice from the bimah, and Rabbi Shaul Robinson, filled with passion, giving his weekly drasha, standing near the ark. I can see the people streaming out to the hallway after davening, and I can smell the cholent from the ballroom downstairs, inviting the congregants for kiddush. I can imagine people jostling for a seat for seuda shelishit in the beis midrash upstairs. In that corner, my son would sit with his father and sing adon olam; over there, I would listen to the exuberant voices of women chanting the megillah on Purim.

All of these memories are attached to a specific place, a hall, a room, even a bench, and to a sense of loss, not fully recognized perhaps, but there nonetheless. It is all a bit puzzling. For if one thinks about it, the congregation is losing very little in the move: in fact, everything and everyone will be coming to the new location, from the Torah scrolls and holy books, to the leaders of the congregation and the members themselves. Nothing, in fact, will change. Only the building will be left behind.

All of this has led me to ponder the question of our attachment to places and things. Who can pass by a childhood home without feeling a sense of longing? And how about the streets where you roamed as a child, the schoolyards where you played, the shul where you grew up, even that kosher butcher where you would do your Shabbos and Yom Tov shopping? Some of these buildings remain but have been delegated for other purposes. Some of these buildings no longer exist. But if you drive by these places, the emptiness will haunt you still.

Then there are those who extend these sentimental feelings to objects, equally connected to memories: the program from a show seen with your first boyfriend, the dress you wore to your graduation, the pearl necklace given to you by your husband, your child’s first pair of shoes, your mother’s book of cherished recipes. All of these are merely things, but so close to your heart, sometimes just touching them can transport you back to another time and place.

I know that I still go up to the balcony of my shul, Beth Jacob, in Toronto, a shul once filled to overflowing with so many dear people, many of them Holocaust survivors, immigrants to a new land. Where do I sit? In my mother’s seat, the one with her name engraved on the back of the bench. There I sit, and if I close my eyes I can still hear the people davening so fervently with the rabbi on the High Holidays and I can see the elderly lady at the end of our row with tears in her eyes. Perhaps she too was thinking of other people in another place, in another shul, now gone. And in that seat I can be with my mother again too, my beloved mother who has since left this world but whose presence seems so near in that place.

And there was once a place so glorious, so beautiful, a wonder of the ancient world: the holy Temple in Jerusalem. There the Jewish people would gather to offer sacrifices, to celebrate the festivals with their families, to eat from the Passover offering, to hear the Levites singing, and the Kohanim blessing the people. It has been said that in that place you could feel the presence of God Himself.

Then one day it was gone. Destroyed. Nothing remained, except for the Western Wall. For two thousand years, the Jewish people mourned this great loss. And we continue to mourn till this day. But what are we mourning? Surely, it is the loss of Jewish autonomy and sovereignty, the loss of our central house of worship, our Great Synagogue. But this week, I have been thinking: it is also a loss of a building, a grand building, more important, more central than anything we have ever known. But it was a building nonetheless, a physical structure that was seen, touched, experienced by thousands.

Why the sense of loss? For it is precisely in this place, this temporal, physical, imperfect world in which we live that we can connect with one another, and ultimately connect with the divine. When the physical structure is gone, something deep within us is lost too.

Lincoln Square Synagogue will, with God’s help, go on to create new and wonderful memories in its new building. But those who founded the original building, and the countless people who prayed in it, feasted, danced, argued, celebrated, studied, learned, laughed and loved within its walls for so many years, they will remember.

Wed, November 30 2022 6 Kislev 5783