Writing about a shul is as impossible as writing about a marriage. No outsider can ever know what’s really going on, and those on the inside know less than they think. There is no Jewish experience, no organization, that touches Jews more frequently or emotionally than the neighborhood shul, and yet the clichés defy conversation.Every shul says their rabbi is “dynamic,” their davening is “beautiful,” they do great things for “young people.” So many shuls insist on promoting themselves like the “Cabaret” emcee: “In here, all is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the rabbi — dynamic.”Why does every rabbi have to be “dynamic,” a cross between Oskar Schindler and Cousin Brucie? Why can’t a rabbi be relaxed and introspective? And how can every davening
be beautiful? Davening is the most elusive and solitary of experiences that rises or falls for reasons having more to do with soul and circumstance than anything else. And why worry so much about young people, when Jewish life is just as hard for us middle-aged folk? Which is why my newest favorite shul is the Bialystoker Synagogue, down on the Lower East Side. Their newly installed Rabbi Zvi David Romm, 31, isn’t dynamic, but gentle, thoughtful, spiritual, and kind. He is even described by some congregants in a slightly Victorian way: They say he is “fine.”
This shul never needed its rabbis to be Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo,” laughs Yankie Goldman, the shul president. This Orthodox shul keeps its rabbis, too, with only six in more than 125 years.The rabbi and the president don’t sit on the red velvet chairs on the stage alongside the massive wooden ark, imported from Poland. Rabbi Romm shrugs when asked about sitting on stage: “It’s too ostentatious,” he says.Here, the chairs aren’t for rabbis and presidents but for children. At the shul during our visit, Juda Engelmayer, chief information officer for the American Jewish Congress, recalled growing up here alongside his grandfather, a former Bialystoker president. Engelmayer says, “When I was bar mitzvahed I sat up there while the rabbi was talking about me and my family.
The Bialystoker has no cantor, no one to make the davening “beautiful,” and everyone’s davening is getting along, or struggling, just the same.
The shul not only puffs out its chest about the four children in its Sunday school, including one little girl named Hester, like the street — but also its middle-aged people, both the shleppers and the famous: Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly, a fourth-generation member who was bar-mitzvahed here is now the shul’s vice-president. The shul is even proud of its scoundrels and dead people: A bronze memorial plaque on the yahrtzeit wall commemorates Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the mobster who was plugged full of bullets on the third of Tammuz, 1947. Every year, on that date, a shammes turns the small yellow bulb beside the plaque of Bugsy ben-Mordechai Dov Halevi.The first known Bialystoker in America was a tough guy, too, Simcha Tzfas, a 28-year-old who arrived in 1842. A longshoreman along the New York rivers, he followed the gold rush to California before returning to New York where he died in 1917, at 103. Old Simcha saw it all, including an immigrant wave of other Bialystokers who in 1873 started davening in each other’s apartments or rooming houses. They graduated to a storefront shul on Hester Street, and then on Orchard Street, incorporating in 1879, before joining up with a newer group of Bialystokers to purchase the Willet Street Methodist Church in 1905.
The church, built in 1826 and now landmarked, is Federal-style, three stories in all, built of Fieldstone and topped by a triangular attic. The Landmark Commission noted the “rugged simplicity” of the old church. A noble church it was, too, its attic serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad. That attic can still be reached by a ladder behind a false-wall in what is now the shul’s women’s gallery.The interior and stained glass were restored in the last decade, revealing spectacular colors and frescoes, from the signs of the Jewish Zodiac to vistas of a rural Israel, perhaps the most breathtaking shul interior in the New York region.And yet, it is more than a little funky. There are several old Yiddish signs in the hallways, some exposed radiators, and a few planks of wood propped against the wall. Some repairs have to wait. Membership fees at the Bialystoker are “bupkis,” says Goldman, “$100.” Only $30,000 in dues is raised from 300 families. “The attitude here was always luzzem, let ’em be,” and yet the shul meets a budget of $220,000 through the generosity of those who can help, while the poor don’t have to beg to pay their dues.Everyone pitches in. One member changes the lights of the chandeliers. Other members built the bookshelves. Engelmayer says, “People do things like that out of love for the congregation, love of the building, love of the shul. That’s the way it’s been here.”“We’re a landmark,” says Goldman, “but we’re a living shul, not a museum,” a veiled reference to the nearby Eldridge Street Project which raised more than $15 million to restore a synagogue that no longer has services, other than on Shabbat. “We have five minyanim daily,” says Goldman, some 200 people every Shabbat, 100 on weekday mornings, and at least 40 in the evenings. “There’s a buzz of activity everyday in the beis medrish,” the downstairs shul and study hall, where “one minyan finishes and flows into the next one.
In that downstairs room, many congregants pray at rectangular tables — the sign of a serious shul, according to cognoscenti. There are shtenders to hold prayer books. Wooden pews are clustered around wooden poles, giving this downstairs room the feel of a forest thicket.“I’ve been to so many suburban shuls,” says Engelmayer, “but this looks the way a shul is supposed to look.”
"It’s home,” says Goldman.“Other shuls,” says Engelmayer, “don’t have patience for children that run around. My kids run around the shul all the time. We encourage the kids to love shul, to want to be here.”“If someone’s upset that Phish broke up,” says Goldman, “or that Jerry Garcia’s gone, they’re invited.”“By and large, people are laid back here,” adds the rabbi. “We have all kinds, people with a streiml, people with the shawl or scarf tallis. Nobody thinks twice.”The rabbi has his favorite private moments. It comes, he says, “After Shabbos is over, when I come back [into the big shul] to put away my tallis. It’s quiet, shtil, I’ll just look up at the ceiling and see how beautiful it is.”Engelmayer says that his favorite moment is less a time than a place. A shul resonates with meaning when young people remember each other’s grandfathers and older people recognize an old friend’s grandchild. “My kids never knew my grandfather,” says Engelmayer, “but it makes me feel good that they’re in a place where their grandfather was.”There’s an old 1919 sketch in the Bialystoker archives of men standing on the sidewalk outside the shul, blessing the moon. They stood on the sidewalk and blessed the same moon in 1873, and you can sketch them in the moonlight of 2004.Nothing changes. It’s not dynamic. It’s Bialystok.