Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lessons From Landau Shul

This Shabbos, I was reading Mishpacha Magazine and an article got my attention about the history of the Landau Shul in Flatbush. One fragment of information that gave me a warm feeling was to read of the closeness of its founder to the Satmar Rebbe Rabbenu Yoel Z"T"L , who was instrumental after the war in gathering together and revitalising many broken individuals, drawing them into viable kehillos.

I first went to Landau synagogue in 1996, when I was saying kaddish and work brought me to the neighbourhood. It was at that time in a temporary structure that despite its improvised look had all of the warmth and vitality of the permanent structure subsequently completed across the street. The temporary structure had been erected after the fire to accommodate the needs of worshippers after a fire in the previous shul.

One thing that struck me aside from the helpful and friendly disposition of the congregants was a tree trunk in the middle of the synagogue. When the temporary structure was built, it was decided to build it around the tree in the centre of the yard. When I first saw it, I saw it as a simple oddity, especially when rain water coursed through its rough bark.

Each day I would note the tree when I came in to pray, and after a while it became an attraction to me. Like a signature or a sketch, it said something about the personality of the designer. An image flashed through my mind of a gentle and self effacing house guest, removing his shoes so as not to tread too loudly , taking three minute showers on Friday afternoon in order to leave water for the next person to use the bathroom.

The maker of the temporary shul knew that the lot in which it stood would again be vacant. He did not want to leave a rotting tree stump where there had once been spreading branches and shade. There was a prior existing order, and even the lofty mission of the humble structure dis not justify needless destruction.

As I continued to pray in the temporary location, the lessons of the tree trunk in its midst penetrated my thinking. I thought of the two exiles facing every Jew. One is the exile from the upper worlds. The other is the Exile from our Holy Land and Bet HaMikdash in Jerusalem.
We are here on earth, hoping to enhance the lot in which rests our temporary structure. Will we leave truncated vegetation and destruction, or will our former abode have been enhanced for our having been there?

Will we be self effacing guests, considerate of others or will we leave behind hosts glad to see us go?

The tree in Landau shul seemed to be a metaphor and a clarification for my thoughts about both exiles, the exile from the spiritual worlds and the exile from our Holy Land. When the temporary synagogue was torn down and the permanent structure built I felt a sadness. The tree remained as testimony to the self effacing thoughtfulness of the Landau congregation. Even though there was a radiance to the building across the street, I missed the temporary structure with its special metaphoric lessons about the exiles in human existence. In a sense, I mourned the passing of the temporary shul in a manner comparable to my sadness about the fall of other temporary structures, housing not congregations but individual souls. Coming to terms with that loss shed metaphoric light on more profound losses that are marked with kaddish and with fasting.

My fondness has deepened for Landau's in its new incarnation. It rests on a narrow lot. Although it is a wide building, it is a sliver abutting the street with a distinctive configuration in which a few steps separate the front and the rear of the shul. Unlike normal buildings in which the depth is from front to rear, this one stretches from left to right, from west to east. In back of it, houses stand undisturbed. The congregation did not seek a greater expanse for its lofty purpose. It fit into existing physical limitations. The snugness of its interior design made the same statement as the tree in the temporary structure.

When I come to Landau's on a crowded evening, I try to make my way unobtrusively through its narrow centre. I think of the tree in the temporary shul and the self effacing narrowness of the new synagogue, I see a common thread. The collective soul of the congregation has moved into its new home. In the new building, I recite a psalm for the end of our exile. I am consoled. Sphere: Related Content

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