Nobody comes to shul…much

We’ve been going to shul more frequently of late. “Shul” is Yiddish for synagogue, temple, house of worship or whatever. The word “shul” is comforting to me, slides off my tongue easily and conjures up memories from my childhood. It brings flashes of the faces of my now long-gone relatives to whom “shul” was the only term they ever used in describing the Jewish house of worship and learning.

In a prior life, as president of our Northridge shul, I regularly avoided Friday night Sabbath services. I made up stories in my head to justify my absence from what seemed to me as an unwelcome intrusion in my otherwise busy week. I just couldn’t see much reason to participate with the other fifteen percent of the shul’s membership who were Friday evening regulars.

Fast forward to Ojai and to a shul that’s about one-tenth the size of our Northridge congregation. In the last fifteen years we’ve wandered through a series of rabbis, who generally stayed with us about two or three years. They moved on either because they wanted more than a small shul could offer or because they just didn’t fit. Our appearances at Friday night services mirrored our Northridge experience, few and far between. The usual exception, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, brought us to shul along with a sea of faces who also needed a map to find the front door.

Sheila, bless her heart, persevered in her position as an on-again, off-again shul president and perennial Friday night service cheer leader. She’s begged, encouraged and even scolded, with little success, miscreants like me to come to Friday evening services. With a small congregation and limited finances, we are able to have a “real” rabbi only two Fridays a month. The rabbi-led services usually generate a reasonable increase in attendance. Enough to warrant turning on the lights and air conditioning. The other Friday nights, led with gusto by Sheila, often found her talking to near-empty seats.

I often said to Sheila, given our congregants’ seeming indifference to schlepping to her capably led though unappreciated alternate Friday night services, that we simply cancel them. Nobody would notice and Sheila could stop whipping herself into a manic frenzy at the thought of another deserted shul night.

Her response was simple. Somebody might need that Friday night service.

That prescient thought was vindicated at last Friday night’s service. Sweetie and I arrived about five minutes before the loosey goosey standard six o’clock start time. Entering the shul we found ourselves facing the only other person in attendance, Sheila. At five minutes past six we were a group of five. Time to start. Even without a minyan.

Wait. Who are those people entering our shul? Two mature adults and five young people. Never saw them before.

Hello. Welcome to shul. What brings you here?

We operate a teen rehab center. These young people are in the program.

These two kids are from New Jersey and the others are from New York. Three of the five are Jewish and the others came along for the ride.

We needed some place to go other than our rehab center. We’re pretty limited since we have to stay away from stuff like, well, alcohol. And other things.

We needed a place that was welcoming and, well, kind of spiritual. We saw your website and the announcement about tonight’s service. So we came. Thanks for being here for us.

One young man led us in a prayer. We all shared the oneg following the service, drank grape juice during the blessing over the wine and touched the challah while holding hands and connecting. We talked for a long time.

They left…smiling.

Glad we were here. For them. And for us.

Thank you, Sheila.

13 Responses to “Nobody comes to shul…much”

  1. 1 Nancy March 16, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    What a nice story! Thanks Dad.


  2. 2 Margo March 16, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    This belongs on our website. Thank you Fred. And thank you Sheila.


  3. 3 Judie March 16, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Can’t tell you how touching your story was. I know the whole scenario made you feel good. It made me smile.


  4. 4 Maureen Ferry March 16, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    I am not one for formalized religion and rarely enter a church or temple of any kind these days unless it is to take photographs of some beautiful light or ancient and beautiful architecture. However, your story is very heartwarming and brought a tear to my eye – I am glad you were all there for each other. Love to you both.


  5. 5 Barbara Aaronson March 16, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Sheila deserves all the joy she should get from reading this.


  6. 6 Joel March 16, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    You never know when a little bit of kindness will make a difference or whether the whale was created just for Jonah, or k’hilat for those boys.


  7. 7 Shari Guilfoyle March 16, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it with us.


  8. 8 Sally March 16, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    Wonderful story, well told!


  9. 9 Alan Greenberg March 16, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    One of your best blogs




  10. 10 Joe Six Packbergstein March 16, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    We’ve got dancing girls at our shul. Attendance has really picked up.


  11. 11 Leila March 16, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    I don’t know if I ever told you of Sheila’s gift to me on the first anniversary of Richard’s passing. I went to temple to say Kadish and we did not have a minyan , and I remember seeing Sheila look at me and then ask the group that was in attendance to stand for Kadish even tho the required 10 were not present. It was special.


  12. 12 Jon Lambert March 16, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    An embodiment of the meaning of “love.” Jewish style.
    Thanks, Fred.


  13. 13 Anne Shrage March 17, 2015 at 10:53 am

    loved your one of those miscreants who do not attend Shul, I love the touching message.


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