“Izzy, come over,” he yells across the beautiful, renovated shul. “Sit. Please join us for Shalosh S’udos.” I had just met Yaakov on Friday night when I decided, for the first time, to daven at the Young Israel of Briarwood. It was very difficult for me to walk in, given the sentimental value there. YIB was the shul that my parents, especially my mom, adored. Mom was very active in the sisterhood and always spoke with such excitement about upcoming shul activities. Mom loved engaging in conversation with Rabbi Kaufman zt”l. Rabbi Kaufman was part of our family. In fact, Rabbi Kaufman was part of everyone’s family.
On the morning of the 21st of Teves (Mom’s third yahrzeit is next month), Mom was eagerly rushing to shul. A grand kiddush in honor of her birthday was to be celebrated, and Mom was so excited. We spoke on Thursday, briefly, because Mom thought she had the flu. In her voice, I felt her euphoria. Mom was looking forward to this day, where she would be the center of attention. “The shul is making me this big kiddush. Izzy, come! You will like it.” Oh boy was she looking forward to this day!
Mom never made it. She succumbed to a heart attack, turning a celebrated event to a day of mourning. Sunday was supposed to be a continuation of celebrations in honor of Mom, with family and extended family gathering. Mom was utterly thrilled to have such an exciting weekend. Family, friends, Y members, and tenants were in disbelief of such a shocking turn of events, but sometimes G-d says no.
Seeing the plaque of Rabbi Kaufman on the wall, a rabbi who served YIB for 45 loyal years, brought back many memories. Rabbi Kaufman, like Rabbi Keehn, were rare breeds as far as rabbis go. In fact, Yaakov mentioned to me that after listening to Rabbi Kaufman’s speech, he never went to seek another shul. He was a rabbi who was real – a rabbi who talked to my soul.
Within minutes of entering YIB, 24 hours before Yaakov yelled that I should join him and the chevrah, I felt positive vibes here. For one thing, I sat near Yaakov and wasn’t once asked to relocate. Even for his son, Yaakov didn’t ask me to move. Once, I recall, a rabbi lashed out at his congregation: “A personal friend came here from Israel and was pushed out of a seat three different times!” He was so angry that he warned the congregation that the next time it happens, “I will throw you out of my shul!” Good luck with that one! No one took him seriously.
But I received the warmest Shabbos greetings at YIB, which I long to remember back in my early childhood, going to the Chasam Sofer Shul. With outstretched arms and joyous smiles (people take notes), I witnessed a camaraderie of loving people experiencing a Shabbos with everyone in attendance. The young, astute rabbi, I think his name is Rabbi Singer, introduced himself. He is a very friendly rabbi who already gave me his phone number, should I want to have a seudah by him on Shabbos. We spoke for quite some time over Shabbos, and he impressed me as a genuine human being who cares for his congregation. Likewise, the congregation enjoys having the new rabbi. Something tells me I will be back.
I have a long-running joke with an old congregant. Since I moved to Queens 15 months ago, I ask him: “How many people asked for me, including the cockroaches and mice?” He jokingly responds that the janitor asked for me. In truth, few ask, but that is expected. How many calls have I received since my departure? Well, the janitor doesn’t have my phone number, so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know the answer. Yet some ask why I left the neighborhood! At YIB, no one was ignored or given a quick “gut Shabbos” and ran off. The Shabbos greetings were warm and sincere.
Sunday, I attended an IAC Conference at the Williamsburg Hotel on Wythe Ave. Since I plan on retiring within a few years, I’m planning my options of where to live. The convention brought many real estate experts to discuss living in Israel. Before speaking about my experience at the convention, I must tell you the Southside of Williamsburg, areas of Wythe and Kent Aves, has undergone a renaissance I thought would’ve never taken place. Twenty years ago, this area was infested with drugs, gangs, and drag racing. There were vacant lots and burned-out buildings. I used to play tackle football with the Puerto Ricans in McCarren Park on Driggs Ave by North 10th Street. Today, McCarren Park is full of Yuppies.
The Williamsburg Hotel is a great place to unwind, stay over, or even for singles to take their dates to. It’s quiet, clean, comfortable, spacious, and offers many amenities. Cafes, trendy shops, and gourmet markets are plentiful, replacing the bodegas, drug joints, and motorcycle clubs. Kudos to the real estate developers.
While listening to the great lectures and talking to the individual experts on living in Israel, they suggested (no joke) being practical; living in Israel is very expensive. My income and pension make living there ill-affordable and non-practical. Sadly, I said that at least I have a choice, but many people who live there are priced out of the market or have huge families squished into small living quarters because of foreign investments driving up demand. Could you imagine wealthy outsiders buying and investing in the holy city of Jerusalem and they don’t even live there?!
Anyway, the experts even suggested Miami as a better fit for me, given the high costs of buying, rentals, and taxes. Some of the mega-developers inquired why I didn’t move to their properties in Jersey City. I said I was in Jersey City recently and it’s a pleasant place to live but it’s not in my future plans.
The lecturers stated that the housing market in Israel gives you limited choices, and is very expensive and extremely bureaucratic, while here in the States you have fewer headaches, more supply, more reasonable prices, and less bureaucracy. I enjoyed the lecturers.
I did get to converse with many participants in between the lectures. Many participants tried to sell me that Israel has k’dushah, while Miami doesn’t. I told them I agree 100%. If you find me a place that is affordable or I get the winning Powerball, I will be moving to Israel.
One young Israeli participant spoke with me in the refreshments room. He has been living here for a while and I really don’t know what he was doing there. He asked to speak with me and went on to tell me why many people here walk around like big shots. He caught me off guard. I thought he was going to ask me a real estate question. He was friendly and there were 20 minutes between lectures, so I gave him my ears.
He told me that this past Shabbos, he was in shul. People walked past him, and no one said Shabbat Shalom to him. “In Israel, this could never happen.” I told him that this past Shabbos, I was in a friendly shul. It was my first time, and I was startled that people were so friendly. People came over and extended themselves, giving me a warm Shabbos greeting. I felt like I have been davening in this shul my whole life. You have to pick the right shul!
You are right: There are people who think they are big shots. Why? I don’t know. You know, people here live life in the fast lane. Everyone is rushing, but to where? I don’t know, but before you know it, these bigshots are 60 years old and slowing down – and then it hits them. Where are my friends? They don’t have any, because in their busy lives, all they did was run aimlessly to the next venture or business deal.
But do you really want these types of people to give you a warm greeting and say a “gut Shabbos”? I wouldn’t. I told this fine Israeli that I was in Israel many times. Israel can’t compare with life in the good ole USA, but you have one thing that we could never duplicate: friendship.
You have real, warm, and caring friends who are always around for you. I spent many months living in Israel. I never had so many caring and loving friends in my life as when I was there. No one walks around like a big shot or cares what the person is doing or his status in life, because to the Israeli, everyone is the same.
I said that I’d spent many years going to LA in the summer because some of my Israeli friends moved there. Summers were the highlights of my year. We spent night after night going out. Work was finished and socializing with friends took over. In fact, LA is one of my options after retirement. They say Israelis are like cactus plants: hard on the outside and sweet on the inside. I could vouch for that.
Before parting ways (I gave him my phone number), I told him a story about Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. The Rav came home one day and bypassed a repair man, who was trying to fix the oven. The house, unlike today’s, had turned into an icebox. Here, the repair guy was working very hard trying to start the oven. The Rav bypassed him, giving him a quick Lithuanian hello. (These are the “two-second hellos” that I am sure you get often. Don’t worry, I get them, too.) The Rav found out that the repairman was Jewish, so he ran over to him, apologized profusely, and begged for forgiveness. The repair man was taken aback. He was a simple man and quickly explained that he wasn’t hurt or upset at the Rav’s quick greeting.
But the Rav was having none of that. “You don’t understand what it is I’m apologizing for,” he said. Over the next hour, in soothing tones, using words and examples that the simple man would understand, he carefully explained how each and every Jew retains a special soul, and how the Jewish people are G-d’s Chosen Nation.
It was after a full hour that the Rav finally convinced the repairman that every Jew has a privilege of being a member of klal Yisrael. Rav Boruch Ber stood up and asked Reb Yid for forgiveness. The repairman pronounced his forgiveness and went back to work, but not before getting a kiss, imbuing this gesture with love and warmth of this fellow Jew.