May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Remote Sanctuary to Save Jewish Souls

Pocomoke City—Dubbed “the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore,” Pocomoke City is a city in Worcester County, Maryland. Although renamed in a burst of civic enthusiasm in 1878, the city is regularly referred to by its inhabitants simply as Pocomoke.

Take in a movie or a show at the Historic MarVa Theater; capture the very essence of your visit at one of their two museums rich in local flavor: the Sturgis One-Room Schoolhouse and the Costen House.

From the town’s website: “Be sure to see our fairgrounds, home to our annual Great Pocomoke Fair and numerous tractor pulls. No day would be complete without a round of golf at Winter Quarters Municipal Golf Course, our riverside nine-hole golf facility. We also have many area restaurants that are just waiting to serve you dinner. Whatever brings you to Pocomoke City, Maryland, we hope you enjoy your time here and find your own reason for calling Pocomoke City “a great place to visit and a wonderful place to live.”

Two men in black kippot walk slowly along gray-paved sidewalk. Their discussion is highly expressive and animated. It’s a scene one would expect to see on any street in B’nei Brak or, for that matter, Brooklyn. One man lifts the black velvet yarmulke from his head to wipe his black hair down a bit.

It’s a sweltering summer day in Pocomoke City.

Rabbi Shimon Grady is walking with a community-house member towards the Congregation of Israel building. Their travel takes them past aging houses with gray chipped paint that have been home to different families for well over a 100 years.

It’s a far cry from Brooklyn, but for Rav Shimon, there is nothing incongruous about his largely Chassidic group and the lower Maryland Eastern Shore town he has chosen to help them heal.

Rav Shimon and his wife, Miriam, live with their two children in an elegant but aging Pocomoke home. Next door is yet another Victorian-type home, this one needing some tender loving care and fixing up.

Just like the men who live there.

But it’s not just men. Indeed, the recent suicide of Faigy Mayer in Manhattan this past Monday evening brought an urgent attention to this population of young people. “Rochelle P.” Faigy’s close friend, spent healing time at Rav Shimon’s community house last summer.

The rabbi was saddened but not surprised by Mayer’s death. He figures that about 10 young adults have committed suicide in recent years because they couldn’t find their place in family or religion.

“The girls and boys have no feeling of hope,” said Rav Shimon. “They run from Orthodox, but then they find out that the outside world is empty for their souls. There is nothing out there for them as they try to survive the NYC life. And their friends are also trying to survive. And that’s a problem, because they are so conflicted and sad that they don’t have much room in their hearts to really help one another.”

Pocomoke, the backdrop for Rav Shimon’s collection of hurting Orthodox people, is the very epitome of a small town, with a Walmart Superstore employing many of its residents. The pace of the day is slow. One wonders how a visitor from Borough Park can handle the heat while wearing a long black bekeshe. Also, it’s no wonder he gets a stare or turns a head or two. A chassid walking along Market Street in Pocomoke City isn’t something regularly seen. Or perhaps ever seen.

Rav Shimon has changed that about overnight.

He purchased the Pocomoke houses and uses the cozy Congregation of Israel with permission from the sole remaining board member, in order to provide a place of respite for any Jew, man or woman, Orthodox or any other denomination. On this day there are about six men occupying the different rooms of the community house.

He’s done so with the help of an anonymous rabbi from Israel who provides both guidance and funds to purchase the properties. But over time it’s going to take fund raising and/or investment in the community house idea to make it successful and for the shul to make a comeback and be a beacon of light for the area. He also wants this to become a valid alternative for Jewish families who are looking for an affordable home.

But the people who reside in this fixer-upper also need their own fixing up.

This is where Rav Shimon comes in. He has a calming voice and eyes that tell the person he is talking to that the individual’s problems are the most important topic at that moment in the world.

Of Yemenite and Israeli background, he is a Talmudic scholar of high reputation. When he sits down to learn with the community-building members, he is surrounded by hundreds of scholarly texts, yet he knows exactly which volume to pull to quote source material. And he chooses each text with a voracious appetite to learn. There is food to help the discussion along. No one in his wildest dreams could ever expect that a shiur would happen in a place like Pocomoke. It’s nothing against Pocomoke, but it’s a far cry from Crown Heights.

It was in Crown Heights where Rav Shimon was involved for eight years with Chulent, a Thursday-night event where anyone could feel safe to come, eat a little chulent and talk to people who were perhaps looking for someone else who would just listen. Many were Jews who felt alienated from the strict, ultra-Orthodox upbringing. Some came wanting to run away from religion, others came with recovery issues, still others just wanted a hug. Some of those Chulent participants have made their way from time to time to Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Indeed, Shimon started the Mayim Institute for Mystical Studies only about three years ago. Its mission and voice were heard in the more populous areas of Ocean City and West Ocean City prior to moving to Pocomoke. Past Passover seders have packed the Grady household.

“There is a real need for a place where Jewish people can find peace in a warm, loving atmosphere,” he said. “This is what we want to do here. We’ve had great help from Israeli business leaders. They have helped us get to such a far point. Now we need to keep going.”

There’s a bearded man in conversation with a friend whose black payot seem to stick to the perspiration on his face. They are involved in a deep conversation, one bringing together Talmud and the direction they feel Hashem has sent them. A mother holding a little boy wearing a green and yellow John Deere tractor hat walks by, the boy staring his eyes out at the two men.

Flashback. Rabbi Shimon extends an invitation to a shiur with dinner at his former Ocean City oceanfront apartment. Ocean City is about half an hour from Pocomoke. It’s a windy, freezing-cold January evening. Ocean City’s entire population is 7,000 during the off-season, a far cry from summer when tourists and beach lovers swell the population to over 200,000.

The warm stew cooking on the stove with a sweet, spicy smell cuts down the impact of the winter’s wind. Behind Rabbi Shimon’s head, one can look out the floor-to-ceiling windows and view the beautiful, harsh seascape. Rabbi Shimon is teaching us that week’s Torah portion. Around the table are Jews from different flavors of Judaism. Two young men in their early 20s, both raised in the strictest of Orthodox homes, had to find respite or a way out at least for a while.

Rabbi Shimon feeds them Torah and food. He also helps them line up jobs and a place to call home even if it’s temporary.

Some have different reasons of self-discovery to be there. There’s an Eastern Shore resident who thought that before he met Rav Shimon that he was possibly the “only” Jew on the Eastern Shore. Intermarried with children, he takes in the warmth, laughter and learning.

“I feel connected by being here,” he said. “I’ve never met someone like Rav Shimon, and I’ve learned so much by coming here.”

Another man, a long-time Ocean City resident, has a European background and comes because of the connection the rabbi gives him to his past. Then there are the ones with deeper stories. One young man, clean shaven with smooth skin and a short haircut, shows an ID from Israel of a guy with sidelocks, long hair and a black yarmulke. That photograph was of his past growing up in ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim in Israel. He left that life behind, searching and at least for now finding happiness photographing the sunrises and sunsets of Maryland’s Eastern Shore or the breakers coming in with the winter’s tide.

On one particular night, an area businessman, an Israeli who has been very supportive of Rav Shimon’s cause, is a guest at the shiur meal. He too finds himself joining in on the benching and enjoying in some of the table talk, which at times is done in Hebrew. To hear Hebrew spoken about the Torah at the ocean’s doorstep is just something so new, so rare for Ocean City.

Over 40 people would crowd into the condominium that spring to celebrate a Passover seder.

That told Rav Shimon that he needed a bigger place. Because of the 40, not all were in a hurry to leave from whence they came. Again with the help of an Israeli businessman, who chooses to remain anonymous, a vacant house in an area called West Ocean City, within 15 minutes of the ocean, was given temporarily for the community house.

The spacious house was a perfect fit. While temporary, it housed many people on their journeys.  One finds the house, which is set back about a block from the road, by the tallit wrapped around the mailbox post.

There was a woman from a Satmar Chassidic background. Wearing jeans and bright red hair dye, she spoke of how she felt restricted in her previous life. She wanted to write music, to sing publicly. She even had a CD she had produced of her strong Carole King–like voice.

“There is a real need for a place where Jewish people can find peace in a warm atmosphere,” he said. “This is what we want to do here. We’ve had great help from Israeli business leaders like Avi Sabony, Mark Scher,  and the Cohen family. They have helped us get to such a far point. It inspires us to keep going.

“It’s safe here for now,” she said. “I can be myself and learn more about that self.”

Another young man said he was from Baltimore. Talkative and intelligent, he confessed that he didn’t know what was going to happen in his life.

He came from what he described as a “black hat family.” His parents wanted him to learn, while he wanted to fix cars. He talked of getting a job as a cab driver in Ocean City or perhaps getting work in an auto body shop. Mostly, though, he wanted to play his guitar and “think things through.”

Rav Shimon would say that every opportunity “is a gift from Hashem.”

Soon would come the chance to connect a community house with a nearby synagogue.

That’s when he learned about the properties available near the small building that was once the Congregation of Israel. Closed down for years, it would once again hear the melodies of davening and the joy of serving Hashem.

The rabbi moved his family into their house in Pocomoke. Next door would be the community house, both a short walk from the small synagogue.

At this writing, five men were living in the community house, each helping Rav Shimon do everything from repair a leak in a bathroom to move furniture in different parts of the house.

“It may not look like much now,” says one of the community-house members, “but Rav Shimon’s vision is that this will be a beautiful Jewish community house. I share in his vision. There is so much spiritual energy here. I want to be part of that solution.”

In the community house, Rav Shimon talks about how he sees the use of certain rooms. Some of those rooms are worn with age. But, again through the eyes of Rav Shimon, there’s spiritual potential here. It’s almost as if he’s looking past the current conditions at how wonderful the old home would be. He’s even picked out space in the backyard for a mikveh and an area for the sukkah.

All of this is happening in the lower Eastern Shore, which is more accustomed to seafood production and chicken-processing plants.

The distance from Pocomoke to New York is easily over 300 miles. But the word of mouth and the social network helped spread the word of Rav Shimon.

One young man going by the name of “Israel,” a New Yorker, said, “I was looking for a place, and a friend told me about what was happening here in Maryland, that a rabbi was trying to institute a Jewish community. I wanted to be part of that.

“I was living the Jewish life, kind of sheltered in an island of Jewish life,” he said. “But I had to find a way to relax. In New York, that can be difficult. So I came here. I feel less pressure and more relaxed here.”

Mordechai, another community member, looks at Rav Shimon and says, “he’s brought a Jewish way of life to the middle of nowhere. He’s trying to start a Jewish community. And that sounded good to me.”

Mordechai, bearded with a booming voice and an infectious laugh, has been at the house for over two months. He’s there for many reasons. But at the point of our interview, he was there to get himself settled. “I need a job or I need to win the lottery,” he said.

Again he had the room laughing when he said, “I thought I was just stopping by a place in Maryland to learn for a short time. But then I met Rabbi Shimon. In my entire life I can tell you that he’s one of the rabbis with the greatest knowledge I’ve ever known.” His personal journey has led him through traditionally Jewish areas such as Monsey and Brooklyn.

“You have to use important skills in life,” he continued. “After 20 years in a religious setting I wasn’t seeing those skills be used properly. Look what’s happening to our kids. For 20 years I tried to fit into something. I learned that fear and judgment has nothing to do with serving God. Rav Shimon is building a community where Jews can come and not feel anyone’s judgment, but instead feel invested in what he’s trying to do here.

“Shimon is building a place where people can grow at their pace,” said Mordechai, the Community House outreach director. “This is a separate, loving environment. It is a place of Torah.”

Rav Shimon sits and listens to the community-house members with a smile that just won’t stop. Why should it? It is as Mordechai said—a house of “many blessings. The one thing it won’t be is normal. We won’t squish the individuality of people.”

Now comes the perhaps more difficult part of this little miracle on the Eastern Shore. To keep the congregation and community house running, not to mention that they are both in serious need of repair, Rabbi Shimon, with the help of others, is in fundraising mode.

Rav Shimon helps settle people in a safe environment, feeds them, learns with them and even helps them to find jobs in the area. But the costs he is looking at to renovate and run his community house alone are easily in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“Fundraising is not what I wanted to do when we started all of this,” he said. “But we need more people to see what we’re doing here so that we can help even more people.”

There is one picture that is difficult to get out of anyone’s mind. In an upstairs hallway in front of a window is a blue-encased, round Sephardic Torah. It sits like a king on a throne. The lazy summer streets handle the slow traffic just below. Rav Shimon’s toddler son is lifted by his dad so that he can hug and kiss the Torah.

Yes, in Pocomoke.

To learn more or to donate to the community house, email Rav Shimon at [email protected] or make it part of your next trip to Ocean City. It’s out of the way, but pointed exactly in the right spiritual direction.

By Phil Jacobs

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