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06/11/2020 07:32:58 AM


Shmuli Fischman


When the Corona virus was finally beaten and bested by the best of humankind, it was not because of thoughts and prayers. It was through the unexpected cooperation and unforeseen grace exhibited by those who were thought of as enemies just a few months earlier. This, of course, happened in 2021, because 2020 would never allow for such an unlikely outcome. Go ahead. Imagine that happening in 2020.

See what I mean?

But in 2021, with Corona defeated, it meant the full return to shul was allowed and even encouraged. No more backyard minyanim and social distancing with awkward mask-selfies belying the strange adaptability of us humans. We would be allowed to go to shul and sit shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face with our fellow congregants.

I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive. What would it feel and look like after so much time away? The idea of packing into an enclosed space still felt wrong and slightly roguish. And yet it was allowed all the same. Fauchi declared it with his distinctive Brooklyn accent; as did Birx in her elaborate Tunisian head scarf, which she always wore as a neck scarf (2020 was very confusing for a lot of people). 

Between those already infected, effective treatments (that didn't include drinking poison) and a working vaccine, the world was a different place.

And it was time to go back to shul.

So, on Saturday morning, I left my house and walked up Diane towards Glenridge. I would have expected more people on the street walking towards Hungry Harbor, but the truth is while I like shul (seriously, who knew? Also, don't tell anyone), I am not always on time to shul. Sometimes, very not on time. And this Shabbos was no different. What I'm saying is, when I wrote above that I left my house on Saturday morning, it really might have been early afternoon. My son had left earlier to join the joyous return at an earlier hour, leaving me with my thoughts as I turned left onto Hungry Harbor.

As I walked up the stairs to the Young Israel, I noticed stacks of books on the staircase, enclosed in hard plastic, a memorial to Jeff Miller's kind words and deeds over the course of the pandemic. I shook hands with Gordon as I ascended to the top of the stairs and entered into the lobby. Once inside, I noticed the Eitz Chaim looked different, with a number of people surrounding it. Moving closer, I saw that the wall memorializing the congregation's dead relatives was now filled from top to bottom, new names and plaques added over the course of the last year and a half. No one spoke as they silently read the names, and some even wept as children ran amongst the mourners blissfully unaware.

Not wanting to disturb those standing near the wall, I made a sharp left down the "Kupferman Stairwell" until I reached the basement, where the din of kiddush club was beckoning and underway. I walked in and saw all the usual people I had missed these many months. Amongst others, we had tall and less tall Carpathians, a skinny Russian (who despite being in the US for 25 years sounded like he got off a boat from Moscow two days ago), several lawyers (those in private practice and those working for three-letter agencies]), an old friend from Silver Spring, a dude who was from Denver or Chicago (I could never remember which), a doctor joined by his parents who were finishing off another bottle, a few former Yeshiva Torah Vodaas refugees, the new Young Israel president, and a guy in a bowtie. (Seriously, he wore a bowtie, which was so 2020). A few old timers stopped by (I had not missed their casual racism), but it was great to see everyone (no matter their politics) - great to greet people however we wanted to; handshake, fistbumps, even hugs.

Now those who know me know that I find hugs to be a bit peculiar (why are we hugging, exactly?) and should be reserved for only a select few. Not on this day. On this day, hugs were for everyone! The liberals and the conservatives, the modern and yeshivish, the Russians and the Carpathians all greeted each other warmly and in the spirit of grace and brotherhood. I realized, however, that there was one hug that I had yet to receive, and so I began making my way upstairs.

I pulled open the doors to the shul and immediately saw Fred at his post to my right, with Isaac standing near him. I said hello to both of them and observed Jordan, Jack, Avi and Torch all in their usual spots (well, Jordan was for one week anyway). I saw former presidents sprinkled about and I heard Jeff and Harry speaking to Jack about something that was surely of significant import. It truly was great to be back.

Smiling, I arranged my tallis and opened the last siddur I found on the shelf. It was in Russian. After finishing shemona esrei, I was chatting/whispering in the back when I got a tap on the shoulder. I turned and found myself face-to-face with the rabbi. It had been a long time since we had seen each other in person, and it took me a moment to get my bearings. After my surprise passed, instead of letting the rabbi embrace me as he had done countless times before Corona, I embraced the rabbi with a powerful hug - one that even surprised me. I was near tears from emotion when I let go of the embrace. An unfamiliar sensation where I come from. (Except during Pixar movies. I mean, who can handle the end of any Pixar movie?)

"How have you been, Shmuli?"

"Not bad, Rabbi, but happy to be back. How about you?"

"Good and thank you for asking. We're happy to have you back."

"Thank you."

"But now that we are back, perhaps you would consider coming to shul a bit earlier? Meaning, not towards the end of mussaf?"

I looked around at all the familiar faces; faces returned after a long and frustrating exile, faces beaming as they embraced that which had been lost. There is glory and nobility in that as well, though I might rail against it at times.

"You never know, Rabbi, I replied. It's 2021 and anything is possible."

The Rabbi nodded.

"But if you will excuse me," I continued, "I have to run as there is a Kiddush at Kodesh I've committed to attend. I mean, how would I justify being late to something like that?"

By: Shmuli Fischman

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784