The Last Minyan of Shaarai Torah East, Conclusion

STOP!  If the reader wants to get a full understanding of this story of community development in action, it may be helpful to read the last blog post, the introduction to Shaarai Torah East and the men of the last minyan who used all their energy to keep their dying congregation going.  

Does anyone remember my good friend, Jack Pearl?

Does anyone remember my good friend, Jack Pearl?

Oak Hill CDC was not the only organization concerned about the fate of this building.  For the past two years, Preservation Worcester had identified Shaarai Torah East as one of its ten most endangered properties in Worcester.  Jim Igoe, the Executive Director of Preservation Worcester and I met to generate over thirty names of people in Worcester who might be interested in working on this project.  In addition to the congregants, local neighborhood residents, members of the Jewish community, interested board members and city officials, we also targeted others including my friend, Jay Sherwin, a program officer for the Greater Worcester Community Foundation whose grandparents were members once of Shaarai Torah, David Coyne, a local activist in the areas of housing and progressive Jewish causes, Norma Feingold and Bill Wallace of the Worcester Historical Museum, Allen Fletcher, owner of Worcester Magazine and Father Enmen, a Jesuit priest who founded Matthew 25, a non-profit dedicated to turning distressed properties into low income housing. 

After a month of personal outreach, twenty three people concerned about the fate of Shaarai Torah came to Oak Hill’s conference room on January 15, 1997 for the first Save Our Synagogue (SOS) meeting.  The meeting took off on a positive note as we dreamed of what the synagogue could become.  Allen Fletcher thought it should be turned into a museum for Jewish and immigrant history.  Harriett and I could see the upstairs sanctuary as a space for a community theater and the downstairs as a space for offices or even a daycare.  Father Fred was sure he could turn the facility into low income housing units.  Keith Chenot, Preservation Worcester’s architect, gave us the bad news about the building.  The roof was caving in, causing damage to the walls.  “Let’s think a bit,” paused my friend David Coyne, “ before we think of what the building could be, shouldn’t we just try to stabilize it? What would it take to fix the roof and prevent further decay?”  Jim Igoe proposed that we submit a grant application for $100,000 to the Massachusetts Historical Commission in order to fix the roof, the most pressing structural problem at that point.

At two subsequent meetings on February 19 and March 19th, more and more people came to the table.  Marianne Bergenholtz, an owner of a graphic arts business, proposed to turn Sharaai Torah into a business incubator.  Neighborhood residents also turned out as well.  Joanne was quite clear that any reuse should be based on what the neighborhood defined as a need.  Through a community based planning process spearheaded by Laurie Ross and Mardi Coleman, it became clear that the neighbors were clamoring for more safe spaces for neighborhood youth.  At a time when welfare reform was impacting the daily lives of low income people nationwide, neighborhood mothers forced to find work, were in desperate need for quality, affordable daycare for their children.  Could Shaarai Torah become a space for neighborhood youth?  So many people took a role in the project in those exciting months.  Janet McCorison of Preservation Worcester researched and then reported on ten foundations that gave grants for historic preservation.  Jay Sherwin publicized this new initiative by getting a photo of Jim, Jack and me in the Greater Worcester Community Foundation newsletter. Allen Fletcher wrote an editorial about the new, potential seeds of life at Shaarai Torah.  Harriett had given a tour of the building to the Worcester Forum Theater that was looking for a permanent home.

During this three month time span, Harriett, Joanne and I cobbled together the most pathetic grant proposal to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.  We didn’t have a reuse plan and Oak Hill CDC didn’t even have ownership of the property.  Additionally, Keith Chenot had provided our only hand drawn sketch of the building with crooked lines.  He didn’t have time and we had no funds.  “Look at our professional architectural drawing,” Joanne said, holding up the sketch and we almost rolled over laughing.  Of course, it was no surprise when our funding request was denied.

Then, something put a halt to this new energy.  A Hispanic Pentecostal church had contacted Jack.  They were a young, energetic and growing congregation ready to make a real offer on Shaarai Torah - $75,000 for the building paid in three $25,000 installments.   Harriett, Joanne and I met with the Hector Morales, the only English speaking member of the congregation.  With Jesus’ help, the congregants, many of them handy with tools and carpentry, would fix the roof and bring the building back to life. When Hector left the office, we talked about how they had no idea what they were getting into.  They didn’t even have a budget.  

Jack and the congregation didn’t have an official attorney.  Harriett and I matched the congregation up with Rob Adler, an attorney with whom I studied Torah each week before work.  Rob called me up that week, “I just got this Purchase and Sale Agreement on my desk.  It’s upsetting.  What a waste to give it away like this!” he vented.

“The men are tired.  They can’t do it anymore.  It’s time to let it go, Rob,” I replied.  We decided we would meet right then at Shaarai Torah to look again at the building.  Would the stained glass window remain in the sanctuary when the church took over the property? What ritual items would have to be removed?

We entered the building for the survey.  Rob noted all the prayer books with his last name, Adler, printed on the binding.  “It’s a sign,” he mused. “There’s something about this building.  I can’t explain.  I feel tied to it.”

“It does cast a spell on anyone who enters, “I agreed.

We moved up to the top sanctuary.  “Look at all the talisim[5] just hanging up and the prayer books everywhere, on the benches, on the shelves.  It’s eerie. It’s like some old Eastern European shul that has been abandoned….like the room is still warm with the prayers of the people who sat here.” Rob was caught up in the feeling. “How can we just give this away?”

In that room that day, Rob hatched a long shot idea.  A wealthy man and client of his law firm used to live in Worcester.  He cared a lot about Judaism and Jewish preservation, even saving an old cemetery in Eastern Europe by funding a caretaker.  Maybe Rob would call.  So, let’s cut to the chase of the story.  Rob did call this man, Al Tapper and yes, he decided he would save the day and purchase the synagogue himself, the same deal Jack was going to give the Pentecostal congregation. 

Breakfast at the Broadway was filled with gossip about this new mystery savior and his plan to turn Shaarai Torah into a museum about Worcester Jewish history and a living tolerance center.

“But what’s he going to do with the building?” Austin Kennedy asked Jack.

“I don’t know but at least I don’t have to figure out what to do with all the memorial plaques and the window.  They can stay.  He’s a millionaire, used to be married to that Liz…” gossiped Jack. “I thought the deal with the church was going to go through.  I shook hands with them but that Rob Adler, our lawyer, he says, ‘what if the church doesn’t pay the rest of what they owe.  Are you gonna kick them out?’ and I says to him, ‘What if Al Tapper don’t pay?’

In the fall of 1997, Harriett and I were invited to meet with Al Tapper who had been unsuccessful to date in getting the local established Jewish community to contribute financial resources to this new project.  He hoped we would help find funds.  The Massachusetts Historical Commission was putting out another request for proposal for its historic preservation program.  Maybe with a clear owner, a plan and more time to put together a proposal, we could garner the funds for the project.  I left that meeting with a clear mandate: to research potential architects to work on the grant and to compile the application.

I found a highly competent Boston based architect, Claude Menders who was the key figure in restoring the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill in Boston and the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.  As he walked slowly through Shaarai Torah on a two hour first visit, he talked aloud to himself, “That is the original paint on the walls, but there is some other design bleeding through those frescoes.” “There’s water leakage there.”  “Hmm, that is the original too. 

“What do you think of the building?” I asked him.

“You can feel that people were happy in here, that there were good times.”

For the next two months, Claude and his team assembled an architectural assessment of the building and a full portfolio for our application.  I put together all the pieces of the grant proposal and solicited as many letters of support that I could possibly get.  Even the former mayor, Jordan Levy, who had celebrated his bar mitzvah many years before at Shaarai Torah, wrote a letter.  If you have gotten this far in the narrative, you can see that community development does not often follow a simple path.  There are set-backs and new starts.  Despite all this hard work, we never submitted the grant proposal we had completed so fully.  At the last moment, Al wouldn’t sign the required commitment letter, declaring that he didn’t want to be tied to historic preservation funds that would place perpetual restrictions on what he could or could not do with the building and the building materials that could be used.  It was a huge, demoralizing defeat and I remember how stunned and angry I felt at the time.  I had put my heart into this project for two years and I had no idea at that point what I could even do to push anything forward.  I retreated and complained to Jack a lot during that time. 

By January 1998, I had quit my job at Oak Hill CDC to go out on my own and start my own grant writing and community development business.  I was engaged by then.  My fiancée and I were looking for a home to buy on the west side of Worcester where the Jewish community now lived.  I still met Jack and the rest of the men at the Broadway regularly for breakfast but I was starting to disengage from the neighborhood and after the pulling of the grant proposal, from the Shaarai Torah project as well.  It turns out that my first client for my new business would be Al Tapper’s Provident Foundation.  Rob Adler called me.  They wanted to hire me to organize the community to pack up the ritual items.  They were concerned that the prayer books and talisim were getting moldy.  They had not turned on the heat that whole winter and the building was deteriorating rapidly, water now pouring into the interior caught in trashcans set up throughout the sanctuary.  Rob wanted the books to be cataloged, packed up, some buried, others brought to safe places to be used by another living congregation.  So, I took this on as my first consulting position. 

On Sunday, May 17, 1998, over 75 people from the Worcester Jewish community dropped in to pack and sort books, clean the kitchen and throw out garbage and trash.  Orthodox women in head coverings worked side by side with non-orthodox women scrubbing the counters and stoves in the kitchen, throwing out plastic plates and other containers filled with mouse droppings.  Young and old collected books, going through drawers in the pews of the sanctuary.  There were books everywhere, even on the floor of the bathroom next to the women’s balcony.  Another group helped Rabbi Melech Lensky of Shaarai Torah West and Rabbi Herschel Fogelman of the yeshiva to sort the books, label and package them.  Some needed to be buried in a genizah. [6]

In all those years, the men of the last minyan never invited me to pray with them in the little sanctuary downstairs.  Orthodox congregations require ten people for a minyan, a quorum to pray and women don’t count.  But here is how I knew that I became an unofficial member of the last minyan of Shaarai Torah.  One morning at the Broadway that first year, Jack turned to me, slipped a key off his chain and handed it to me.  “I figure you need this,” was all he said.  I never asked him for the key to the building.  This action was a turning point, indicating that I had crossed into new territory.  I had become his trusted friend and a keeper of the holy space. 

One day, I was meeting with Benny Bailin in the lower sanctuary of Shaarai Torah to tape record his story.  At one point, Syd Yaffe showed up.  He had noticed the open door of the shul and was worried about what was going on.  Syd was on his way to visit Eddie Smith and Barry Jaffe who were both sick at St Vincent Hospital.  Syd told us we should both come to visit.  It was important.  When the three of us arrived to Barry’s hospital room, Jack and Irving were already there.  I realized that all of us almost constituted a minyan.  Wasn’t it fitting that these men now met, not in the halls of the synagogue, but in the halls of a hospital as they mourned the passing of each other and their community?  

The last minyan no longer prayed in the opulent sanctuary upstairs.  They met in this cozy room downstairs converted into a small prayer space.  Photo courtesy of Worcester Historical Musuem

The last minyan no longer prayed in the opulent sanctuary upstairs.  They met in this cozy room downstairs converted into a small prayer space.  Photo courtesy of Worcester Historical Musuem

When I started leading services in 1986, at least 16 – 20 men came on a Saturday. Now, most have died. It was never a lack of finances. I know the books and someone is always willing to donate. It was a lack of men, of congregants to pray.
— Joel Shaw, member of the last minyan
Shaarai Torah during the golden years when the synagogue was packed full.  Jack once showed me some photos of people laughing and sitting in the social hall and said, “It was a great organization but like everything else that passed on.  I look at these pictures now of people that used to come to these affairs and 90% of them are gone.  I know this one just died, used to be a chicken dealer. Cohen, gone.”

Shaarai Torah during the golden years when the synagogue was packed full.  Jack once showed me some photos of people laughing and sitting in the social hall and said, “It was a great organization but like everything else that passed on.  I look at these pictures now of people that used to come to these affairs and 90% of them are gone.  I know this one just died, used to be a chicken dealer. Cohen, gone.”

For me, I was witnessing the slow death of everything – of a beautiful building, a neighborhood that once was teeming with Jewish life and each precious man who constituted this last minyan. By the end of 1998, Jack couldn’t put together a minyan if he had tried.  Eddie Smith had died on September 18th and Milton Griff died on December 17th.  Jack missed Eddie so much at those breakfasts.  Eddie had prayed and ate and laughed with Jack for over 57 years at Shaarai Torah.  Eddie had never left the neighborhood, still living in the house on Farrar Avenue where he had first fallen in love with his wife, Rose.  He showed me Rose’s candlesticks, her report cards, her civil service exam, her photos when I visited him once.  “Oh God, how I miss this woman!” he started to cry. When Rose had died nine years before, Jack had made him go to the Broadway for breakfast.  For many of the men, the minyan was the antidote to the loneliness that frequently comes with old age.  They could pray with friends, eat a bit of cake, drink some wine together.

I used to hang around the house and make a cup of coffee. Come on, “ Jack says, “come down. So I was going at least a couple of days a week and then three days. ‘C’mon’, he says, ‘what are you going to do at home?’
— Eddie Smith on why he had breakfast at the Broadway

As the Broadway breakfast crowd was shrinking, the synagogue too was dying from neglect. Al Tapper and the Provident Foundation did nothing more with the property. A truck careened off the road, crashing into the wrought iron fence to the brick façade.  By that point, I had already moved over to the west side and was getting busy with new consulting projects.  What else could I do at that point? And then, it only got worse.  The office manager from Oak Hill CDC called me on September 16, 1999 in a panic.  I should come over right away.  The synagogue was on fire.  I quickly called Jack, Jay Sherwin and David Coyne.  By the time Jay and I drove over to the site, Jack was already standing outside next to Benny Bailin in a rainy afternoon downpour.  They stared silently as the building was being consumed in flames.  At least nine fire trucks surrounded Shaarai Torah, pouring water through the upstairs windows and roof straight into the balcony.  So here is what happened:  Two neighborhood youth, one 17 and another 14, skipped school that day.  With time on their hands, they found a way to get into the building.  They used the stack of prayer books all boxed up, the ones we never got around to moving and and storing, as kindling for the fire they set.  The building burned quickly inside, the once majestic interior now destroyed.  My throat still closes in sadness when I remember that day and I looked over to Jack whose eyes were tearing.  

Here is the anti-climactic end to the story.  Obviously, the building we all loved so much was completely trashed.  Somehow (I was not involved in this part), the building was sold in 2003 to Selim Lehoud, a local developer who converted the interior to condominium units.  Harriett and I drove over there during the construction phase to find out what was happening.  The construction workers allowed us to enter this once sacred space.  We were both happy that some of the historical elements of the building such as the frescos painted on the walls were incorporated into the new design.

Now, it is twenty years later.  Maybe one or two of the last minyan are still with us.  All of rest– Jack, Irving, Syd, Henry, Milton, Eddie, Barry-  are all gone.  Even Harriett Lebow, my friend and dearest mentor, died a couple of years ago.  Now, it is safe to say that there is really no more Jewish presence on Union Hill. 

I wonder if anyone has come to the end of this story.  Maybe just the ones who lived this with me are still here at the end of this tale.  So, I ask the reader, do you feel sad?  Do your eyes tear with me now to remember that once a group of men gathered together for years in a special space and now the place and the people are no more? 

I’ve been a follower of Buddhist dharma long enough to know viscerally that the one thing we can be sure of is that everything is impermanent.  Flowers grow, smell sweet and then fade away until another season.  People, buildings, communities even civilizations have their time in the sun and then die.  The suffering comes when we try to hold on too long and deny the inevitable changes.  So, how are we going to live?  There’s a choice here, you know, zoog.  We can stay locked up in our rooms, afraid to live and get hurt. We can wallow in a nihilistic, existential funk, sitting on the sidelines of life, thinking, “what the hell is the point?”  Or just maybe, we can take a chance to love deeply and to live life to the fullest, juiciest end.  We can skin our knees, pick ourselves up and then move on to the next adventure. Here is my truth: I will never regret that once I fell in love with a building and that an old man named Jack became my dear friend.