This week marks the two-year anniversary of Boca Raton Synagogue, like shuls across the world, shutting down in response to the threat of the then-new Coronavirus. I will never forget the meeting of rabbanim gathered in my office as we held a call with the head of our local hospital and he made a personal request that we announce a temporary closure and short lockdown to both slow the spread and preserve the critical, lifesaving resources. As desperately as we resisted, ultimately, we gave him our word, hung up the phone and convened for Mincha—what was to be the last minyan on our campus for over two-and-a-half months.
Looking back over these past two years, there are many decisions we can be proud of and stand by, others that were the best decisions at the time and that we would make again with the knowledge and information we had at the time, and others we undoubtably could have made better (I have no doubt some reading are thinking in one direction, while others believe the opposite).
This week, I happened to come across an open letter I had written to our Shul, the building and campus I missed so much. Reading it moved me because it brought me back to how I had felt. But it also saddened me greatly, because I realized just how quickly so many of those feelings faded, and how fast I went back to taking so much for granted.
To my dear, precious, and sacred Synagogue:
For the last ten weeks I have missed you so. I have longed to be together with our shared friends, united in prayer in your sanctuary, joined in learning in your Beis Medrash, celebrating beautiful simchas in your social hall. I have yearned to bring our children to youth groups in your classrooms and to play on your playground. For ten weeks I have pined to spend time with friends in your hallways, to shmooze on your front lawn, and to linger in your lobby.
For over two months now I have dreamt of kissing your Torahs, of singing along to the sweet melodies coming from our wonderful chazzanim standing on your bima. My finger aches to point at the Torah being lifted during hagbah for all to see and my hand hurts from not giving out candies to the countless children who come to say “Good Shabbos” on Friday night. My feet yearn to dance with Bar Mitzvah boys upon receiving their first liyah and my head hankers to get hit by candies thrown at young men celebrating their aufruf. My office sits empty, absent the people who come to meet with me, but as much to encounter you, to find solace, strength, meaning and support in your walls, in the symbols and holy objects your furnishings contain.
Every day for over seventy days I have wondered, when? When can we come back? When will this exile end? When will this isolation expire? When will we be together again? When will we finally feel the comfort and confidence you provide? We have never needed you more than when we can’t have you. We have never wanted you more than when you are inaccessible to us.
Davening simply hasn’t been the same. What I would give to hear those who sometimes daven so loudly they distract me. Things just don’t feel right without the pacers, the shukelers, the stragglers, the whisperers, the screamers, and I dare say, even the talkers. Maybe we weren’t all getting it entirely right, but we were there, we showed up, we were together. And now we are so far apart, so alone, so distanced. Our davening is too quiet, too isolated, too far away from you, our holy space and sanctuary. Just being with you brought out our best, helped us concentrate and focus, and now we feel so lost, so displaced, so out of sorts.
To be completely honest with you – it certainly has been refreshing to automatically be on time, to be able to daven at our own pace or to slow down for the sake of children we now daven with, to not have to fight for a parking spot or a seat. But we would trade those comforts and conveniences in a heartbeat just to be with you again.
My beloved and cherished shul, I have missed walking behind your Torah to and from the bima, shaking hands and hugging friends along the way. My soul screams to have the privilege and honor to transmit our tradition’s timeless teachings from your shtender to a packed room, men and women, young children and Holocaust survivors, most of whom are thirsty to drink from the fountain of our Torah’s wisdom and even to those whose eyes are closed as they are “deep in thought.”
Just a few months ago, your worn-out carpet and areas that need a coat of paint jumped out at me as I focused on your blemishes and flaws, but now I couldn’t notice such things because you are beautiful to me, perfect as you are, and I just want us to be together again.
To be clear, our separation is not your fault or ours. You heroically sacrificed, shutting down long before you were legally obligated to, all to protect us, even though it meant you would sit alone, empty and maybe even looking abandoned.
My darling BRS, for months I have fantasized about our reunion. I have visualized our first time back together, the palpable joy, the unbridled happiness, the affectionate hugs, the sincere seudas hoda’ah and the emotional birchas shehechiyanu. I have pictured how we would decorate you, how we would sing and dance with your Torahs, kiss your siddurim, embrace your chumashim. We would settle into your chairs, breathe a sigh of relief, and feel a surge of strength, faith, and hope. We would be back where we belonged.
And now that this day is finally here, we feel so close and yet we must remain so far apart.
This coming week, if all continues to go well, we will return to your campus, but we still cannot enter your premises. We will be together in makeshift minyanim, but we will still be separated by at least 8 feet. Instead of hugs or handshakes, we will be lucky to say hi. Instead of a reunion, we will experience a tease. Instead of feeling we are back, we will still feel like we don’t know where we are. Instead of dancing, we will be distancing. Rather than see into each other’s hearts we will be staring at one another’s masks.
As badly as we want things to return to normal and to be familiar, my dear shul, we accept that this simply isn’t an option just now. Last week we completed the third book of the Torah and declared “Chazak.” We couldn’t scream it with you, but nevertheless we meant it more than ever when we turned to one another and said, “Be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened.” And this week, as we begin the fourth book of the Torah (we will have so much rolling to do when we finally come home to you), we acknowledge that a person has to make himself or herself a midbar, a desert, to truly receive Torah. We have proven our willingness to live with barrenness and spiritual homelessness and now, in that merit, we desperately hope to come home.
Our dear shul, our love and longing for you will never fade. While we still can’t step inside, we will soon be one step closer to being together. We hope you understand that while that will have to do for now, it still isn’t enough.
With love and longing,
Your dear friend,
As we reflect on the last two years, there is so much we are grateful to move on from but there is also so much to hold on to and to take with us. Don’t put this extraordinary time entirely in the rear-view mirror. Revisit and reflect on those feelings and experiences, and transform what was a difficult two years into the catalyst for transformation, growth, and breakthrough in our relationship with our shul, ourselves and those around us.