Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Agudas Achim Targeted

You can’t find a Synagogue like this in any other place –not in America and not in Israel. It is special because of its unique manner in which it serves its community. While it is a synagogue and offers religious services for its Jewish members it is also acutely sensitive to the needs of the overall community, many of which are the poor, uneducated and with little opportunity. For the past ten years our Rabbi has defined his ministry as serving the Jewish community while at the same time not neglecting the social needs of the larger community.

It isn’t hard for Rabbi Lefkowitz to help lift up those in desperate need of help because his first love is humanity. If one would be able to define him they would say he is a servant of God in the service of humanity. In actuality our Rabbi is operating in the great tradition of the founder of Hassidism, Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer, and better known as the Baal Shem Tov. He was a populist seeking out his ministry in pubs, market places and meeting halls where the unrepresented working class gathered and sought solace, offering hope to those abandoned by the mainline intellectual rabbinate. So too, Rabbi Lefkowitz defined his mission as a rabbi of the people, the working class, the unskilled laborer and other faceless people too long ignored by mainstream intellectual Jewish leadership. He has given our community spiritual contours which it never had before, and hope in place of despair. This community in a sense had become a social laboratory where the spiritual quality of the community has increased in spite of the challenge of fighting poverty and crime. It is probably the only community in the entire country where one can witness a rabbi give meaning to the rabbinic expression “yerida litzorech aliya”, coming down to the level of his parishioners in order to lift them up. This is one of the reasons that people such as myself have left the comfortable, but sterile suburbs for this community.

That’s why the break in and robbery of the synagogue this past weekend is even more painful. It was a dastardly and cowardly act because it was done not only on the Sabbath, but also to an icon of this community that is intimately identified with the people. What makes the crime all the more vicious is the fact that it is not only a crime against the synagogue, but it is a crime against everyone – Jew or gentile living in the neighborhood. The synagogue has become over the years a symbol of hope for the entire community. It has become the axis upon which so much of the local political and social planning revolves. It has become the pulpit of social justice for the entire community, with the knowledge that our Rabbi will do everything he can to protect the welfare of everyone living in this community.

It’s not as if our synagogue was the wealthy bastion of the upper middle class, which had in its coffers money and ornamental gold and silver adorning its sacred objects. Agudas Achim has scant resources, barely maintaining the minimum requirements of the city building codes. Its members for the most part are the poor Russian émigrés, too poor to have left for the suburbs and too few people like me, running from the suburbs in search of a little spirituality.

This was the second break-in of the year. In the first robbery these thugs stole original hardware and furnishings dating back to 1927. While there may have been value to the items stolen, they were irreplaceable because of their sentimental value. Items dating back to 1927 conjure up imagery of another time, a different era, and in a sense gave testimony to the fact that there once was a thriving Jewish community here. This time, however, they took some expensive, high tech audio visual equipment, commercial grade that was donated to the synagogue. It was intended for fundraising in order to improve the physical plant.

What is most troubling is the fact that our future is in question regarding our security. In the past year we have had two burglaries and we have no reason to think that there won’t be a third unless we can install security. Most synagogues are fortunate enough to have the available funding to provide for ample security systems. Agudas Achim is not only worried about being able to afford basic security; it is also concerned about providing security outlined by Homeland security.

Agudas Achim is a special kind of synagogue. It is a synagogue which caters to community that hasn’t the financial ability to secure its future. All other synagogues are created out of a solid financial core that has a business plan and adequate funding. What makes Agudas Achim unusual is that it gave true meaning to the theological underpinnings of “tichiyat hameitim”, the resurrection of the dead. Many years ago the synagogue all but expired. Rabbbi Lefkowitz, resurrected it and it now needs the help of the expanded Jewish community and its funding agencies to help assure its future.