June 23, 2024
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When an Orthodox Shul Needed a Parking Lot on Shabbat: A Lesson in Community

Twenty-eight years ago I was a young father and had just moved to Bergenfield. My wife was a medical intern and each Shabbat morning I took my 2-year-old daughter and newborn son in a double stroller to the nearest shul—Congregation Beth Abraham. At the time, it was a pretty small shul. My family was member family #49. These were the days just before Rabbi Neuberger became rabbi.

The shul community was very welcoming and its proximity and the availability of an eruv made my life much easier. The shul had some much older members. In fact, its reason for being was originally to provide a convenient place to daven for one of its infirm members (Editor’s note: This was Ernie Kohlhagen’s father, both of blessed memory, according to Marge Kohlhagen, one of The Jewish Link’s most enthusiastic now-Florida-based readers). Since it was small, the older men interacted with the younger members and one shared with me two stories about the origins of Orthodox Jewish life in Bergenfield, teaching me in the process about the larger notion of community.

To convert a home into a house of worship required the approval of the town zoning board. Unfortunately for the shul, the zoning board expected that houses of worship would have parking spaces for their members during the hours of worship. They were especially concerned about Shabbat services, which by analogy with Sunday church services required parking spaces for the once-weekly influx of worshippers. Knowing that street parking was inadequate, the zoning board was unable to approve the home-shul conversion without explicit provision for parking. Now, many of you reading this realize that Orthodox Jews do not need a parking lot on Shabbat as they are proscribed from driving on the Sabbath. However, the zoning rules had to be applied consistently to be fair and the zoning board had no choice but to reject the application unless a parking lot could be established.

The pastor of the neighboring church—one block away to be exact: the Church of the Good Shepherd—heard the story and feeling empathy with fellow community members offered his parking lot on Saturday for the use of driving Beth Abraham members. This kindness made it possible for Beth Abraham to get its zoning approval. Unsurprisingly, to date, no Beth Abraham member car has been sighted in that parking lot on Shabbat.

The second story involves the eruv itself. The details of this are murky as I am not fully aware of the intricate halachic issues involved. However, one of the older men informed me that when the eruv was first built its founders believed that they needed the consent of the larger community to create a shared public space in which baby carriages and carrying would be permitted. The small community of Orthodox Jewish families could not produce such consent so some official document had to be procured from the town. Although I never saw this document, I was assured that such a document had been crafted by an accommodating official of the town, thereby creating the notion of a communally shared space. This document was real and existed in someone’s drawer although both the individual and the drawer are lost to history.

I will add a third story from my own experience. Bergenfield’s Shimmy Stein recognized that the young boys of the shul could not join Little League or PAL (Police Athletic League) because baseball practices were held on Saturday. He related to me that the town had a strict rule of not making the parks available for baseball practice Sunday morning because such activity would compete with church attendance. In those days, such issues were top of mind, as the residual “blue laws” closing stores on Sunday in Bergen County continue to attest. A discussion ensued in which the different “Sabbath” of the Jewish members of the Bergenfield shul community was identified and the officials were reassured that the children of Beth Abraham would not be shirking their Sabbath “church” attendance for the baseball diamond. This issue thus resolved, the parks were opened on Sunday to the boys of Beth Abraham who created Bergenfield’s first Shabbat-observing PAL baseball team.

These stories are not known by many. The first two were told to me by those who are no longer with us. A story’s survival is dependent upon an oral tradition whose transmission requires not only a commitment to historical truth but more importantly a commitment to hakarat hatov—an affirmative obligation to remember kindnesses and pass on that recognition to those who follow.

The core kindness in each of these stories derives from the realization that we live in many communities: a Jewish community, a community of believers and a community of townspeople—concentric circles of affinity and mutual obligation and respect. It is that notion of shared community that is the core heritage that each of the progressively smaller concentric circles must pass on to their children, thereby creating the social capital that makes our towns wonderful places to live and raise our families.

One of the benefits of living in such a community is that the emergency response services are staffed by many members of our own shuls, as well as many of our neighbors, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In Teaneck and Bergenfield, the ambulance corps (TVAC and BVAC) are the meeting ground for many of our young adults and our neighbors’ young adults who are joined in shared civic obligation and opportunity to save human lives. These organizations and their members selflessly give of their time and by their acts not only save lives but create a web of community and community good will between town members who do not worship in the same places or even worship at all—a far too rarely recognized benefit.

Please give generously to this important community service, which is having an awareness Shabbat on July 1, in all of the Teaneck and Bergenfield shuls. For more information or to donate to TVAC/BVAC, please visit their websites (www.teaneckambulance.org, [email protected]/ www.bergenfieldambulance.org/ [email protected]).

By Eran Bellin

 

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