Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The last Jews in __________

I just heard this song for the first time two nights ago. It's from the CD "Emunah," an old Shlock Rock album that Mark recommended--we bought it at last Sunday's concert. Sadly, the story that the song tells sounds all too familiar.

The Cycle

"In the beginning a few had said come on let's build a shul.
It was 1924 in Richmond Hill.
Many people started moving into the neighborhood.
And soon the synagogue began to fill.
Word had spread about the shul that had grown in such short time.
The Shabbos crowd flowed into the streets.
Children running round and round looking for their parents.
Who would try to keep them quiet in their seats.

I remember those times like they happened yesterday,
Said the Shammos to me with a twinkle in his eye.
And even though that was long ago, I still see it very clearly.
Let me tell you what went on during those times.

On Mondays and on Wednesdays there was Hebrew school at 4.
And every day Daf Yomi would be taught.
A Kiddush every Shabbos morning after we had prayed.
It seemed like a simcha every other day.
We watched the children grow up succeed and move away,
Getting married, having children, teaching them to follow in our path
The neighborhood began to change and with it the shul too,
People started moving out now I'm the last.

And as the sun broke through, the stained glass windows in the Shul,
He turned to me and then began to smile.
I've heard about a neighborhood that's growing very fast
To take our place and continue for a while.

And so a chapter ended in this neighborhood in Queens,
And the Shammos stood, and then he turned to go,
But in another place a cycle was beginning,
To keep the flame alive and help us grow."

My husband wanted to move to the New Jersey suburbs, but I'd grown up and gone to college in the Jersey 'burbs, and I was having none of it. I liked being able to hop on a subway train, and being able to wheel my shopping cart to a supermarket around the corner. I had no interest in going back to living in a place where I'd have to drive two miles just to pick up a quart of milk.

So we moved from Manhattan, for which we weren't wealthy enough, to one of the outer boroughs of New York City, still on the subway lines.

My insistence on staying in New York City (and our resultant move to this neighborhood) was one of the worst mistakes of my life.

I should have seen the writing on the wall when so few children showed up in synagogue for services on the average Shabbat (Sabbath) morning. I should have known that we'd moved to a dying Jewish community when the last kosher butcher moved out of the neighborhood a mere two years after we'd moved in.

My son has paid the price. By the time I realized that he would never have a true Jewish community in which to grow up--one with other Jewish children from families that took Judaism seriously enough to think that Junior Congregation was more important than soccer practice--we were no longer in a position to move.

There was a time, when we first arrived, that I used to have to bring my own machzor (holiday prayerbook) from home on Yizkor days because, when I tried to borrow one from the last row so that I could follow my then-toddler around the synagogue building, the folks complained that there weren't enough machzorim to spare. But slowly, the crowds shrank to such an extent that there was no point in worrying about the fact that the accordion doors separating the sanctuary from the ballroom could no longer be opened--there were no longer ever enough people for us to need to use the "back," even on Yom Kippur. Several years ago, we sold our beautiful big synagogue building and built a much smaller one. It's a stopgap measure, because the synagogue is still hemorrhaging members--within the past two years alone, we're lost 18 congregants to the Mal'ach HaMavet (Angel of Death). The odds are that, sometime within the next five-six years, we'll have to sell our new building and move into a house. We'll be a Conservative shtieble. And who knows how long we'll last, even there? The local Reform synagogue merged with two other syngogues and moved out of the neighborhood years ago. Of the three Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, one sold its building and moved into a house, so we already have one shtieble in the "nabe." A second survives only because most of its building is rented, on weekdays, to a special education school.

The third? Well, that's an interesting story. When our shul sold its big building, the Orthodox yeshiva (Jewish day school) housed upstairs had to find another home. The third Orthodox synagogue packed up its Torah scrolls and followed the yeshiva. The cycle does, indeed, continue--you'll be happy to know, Lenny, that Jews are now moving back to Richmond Hill.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the rest of us (off the Eastern seaboard) it's often like that. Rockford Illinois dies; does the Jewish growth in Tuscon or Phoenix make up for this?

Fri Sep 29, 12:12:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

That depends on whether you're looking at the overall picture or the local picture. In terms of the survival of the Jewish people as a whole, the birth of a new community makes up for the death of an old one, but that's not much consolation for the three-and-a-half people left in the old one, quoth someone watching her own community die. The Shamash (Shammos) in that song is a cockeyed optimist, able to rejoice in the broader picture. Would that I could say the same for myself.

Fri Sep 29, 04:04:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's sad, but part of the cycle. Jews tend to be educated and upwardly mobile. Communities around an Orthodox Shul and Yeshiva tend to rapidly grow, as people flock to a community with restaurants, butchers, and a synagogue, which causes a run-up in housing prices.

Some pioneers that don't want to pay the premium to live there and have money but want a bigger place in a cheaper area sell their homes, move to a new community, and build a synagogue. Once critical mass is hit, the community grows and grows, until prices run up, and people move for greener pastures. As prices run up and the tax base builds with the children in Day School, the local schools get better and better, and rich gentiles move in to take advantage of it, pricing out the Frum families, who have to decide between living in the community and paying tuition builds, and the cycle repeats.

In the US, with its small Jewish population, the cycles are natural. The growing synagogues increase dues, building fund requirements, etc., and the community eventually flees for greener pastures or a cheaper Shul, causing the lovely "close-knit" community to separate, and we move.

Good luck. and thanks for the post.

Sun Oct 07, 01:57:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Alex, sorry I missed this comment and took so long to reply. Your explanation sounds reasonable--sad, but probably true.

Fri Nov 02, 08:02:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

And thanks for wishing us good luck. We're going to need it.

Fri Nov 02, 08:04:00 AM 2007  

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