Archive for July 11th, 2011

One of the first synagogues I ever entered was the massive Beth Tzedec Congregation on Bathurst Street south of Eglinton Avenue West in Toronto. My first spouse and I attended there for the wedding of a co-worker, Linda Goldstein.

It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to describe this place as an airplane hangar. It is monstrously huge. The building also houses two smaller chapels within it.

Why so huge? Here is one explanation…

Rabbi Morton Green was, for 44 years, the Rabbi of the Adas Israel Congregation in Hamilton, Ontario (a structure built along the lines of the Beth Tzedec in Toronto), and has been Rabbi Emeritus there for the 15 years or so since. He once explained that synagogues in Canada and the United States built after World War Two suffered from an ‘edifice complex.’ These Jewish communities were so grateful to be alive after the horrors of The Holocaust that they wanted to build a structural testament… a monument to their continued existence.

Hence the Airplane Hangar Syndrome.

Some people love these kinds of places for a variety of reasons. They like the sense of community. They like being in a place filled with their friends and colleagues. They like the relative richness of the setting, the comfortable seating, the nice banquet halls. Sometimes, there is a cantor with a wonderful voice to sing the prayers. I often get the feeling that for at least some of the congregants, going to synagogue, especially during high holidays, is kind of like attending a theatrical performance. You go there, sit down, enjoy the show and afterwards, maybe some cake and coffee before going to the grandchildren’s house for a nice lunch. And why not?? They’ve earned it. They deserve it. Abi gezint! [1]

It’s just not for me.

I prefer a shtiebel.

A shtiebel is a little hole-in-the-wall place where Orthodox Jews, often comprised partially or entirely of hasidim, come to pray and study. Instead of a large imposing edifice, it is often a storefront (like Bais Dov Yosef Congregation or the Ger Shtiebel where I go when I am in Toronto) or a just a room somewhere (e.g. in a hotel basement, like the Chabad shtiebel in Niagara Falls where I go when I am at home).

A shtiebel doesn’t usually have an impressive aron kodesh. It’s usually just a wooden cabinet. The seating isn’t padded and comfortable. Most often, it’s just tables and chairs. There isn’t a cantor. Usually two or more of the congregants take turns leading prayer services. There is very rarely a ‘sermon’ or D’var Torah [2] by the congregation’s rabbi [3] during services. Most often, if there is a ‘sermon’ to be given, it is done at the shalosh seudah or seudah shlishis meal on Shabbes afternoon.

The services at a shtiebel may be somewhat lacking in style and form… but they more than make up for it in substance. There is a feeling of spiritual intensity in a shtiebel that I’ve rarely experienced in a larger synagogue. [4] And at the same time, the lack of formality makes a shtiebel a more heimish [5] place. For example, unlike in many larger congregations, a new visitor or stranger is welcomed warmly. Congregants greet each other with a friendly smile.

Also, while larger synagogues tend to be more formal and quieter, shtiebels tend to be more informal and noisier. Children run up and down the centre aisle. People pray loudly and at their own speed and pace. And, except for times during Torah reading and certain prayers, congregants often converse during services (sometimes so loudly, they have to be ‘shushed’ by other congregants).

Because the congregations are so small, you know virtually everyone who comes to services. When someone has a celebration… the birth of a child or grandchild, a bris (circumcision), a bar or bas mitzvah, an engagement, a wedding… the whole shtiebel rejoices! When someone suffers a personal tragedy… a death of a loved one… the entire congregation mourns!

Every person… from the poorest lowliest simple person to the most righteous, scholarly and holy person… from the most respected mensch to the most colourful local characters… each one is his own piece of the shtiebel mosaic.

It is perhaps this close intimate connectedness that I love most. The feeling that you are part of a whole. That together, person by person, Jew by Jew… you form part of  Klal Yisrael… All of Israel… All of the Jewish people.

I once explained the ‘shtiebel feel’ to a non-Jew by making a comparison to the 1997 movie Titanic. The upper decks had their sumptuous meals, formal evening wear and elaborate place settings. But down in lower decks, while things were less classy and less formal, there was a vitality and love of life among the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Given the choice, would you forgo the comfort and elegance of the formal dining rooms and grand ballrooms to make your way down to the small, noisy, crowded parties? Would you feel more alive down in steerage?

I did. And, for me, there is no looking back.


[1] Abi gezunt! [also pronounced abi gezint] (Yid., אַבי‮ ‬געזונט) – from German Aber gesund, literally “but healthy,” meaning “As long as you’re healthy!”; often used as an ironic punchline to a joke (as in ‘Cancer shmancer… abi gezint!’)

[2]  A D’var Torah (Heb: דבר תורה) (Plural: Divrei Torah) is a talk on topics usually relating to a section (parashah) of the Torah – typically the weekly Torah portion.

[3] It is not uncommon for a shtiebel congregation to be made up mostly of rabbis or at least men who have attended a rabbinical school.

[4] The notable exception being the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services a few years ago at the above-mentioned Adas Israel Congregation in Hamilton, especially when the Lavin family was in attendance. You could feel the holiness in the air!

[5] Haimish (also heimish): home-like, friendly, folksy (Yiddish‫ היימיש ‬ heymish, cf. German heimisch)


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