First Impressions

Finding T&V

Margaret Liu

   A few days before Rosh HaShanah 2017, I found myself in a Manhattan hotel with my husband scheduled to be on call at NYUMC for the holiday. A colleague of his, Judy Benstein, M.D., suggested I attend services at her shul, Town & Village.

   I remember the warm welcome I received at the front door of the sanctuary and being guided in with instructions that the aisle seats were reserved for individuals needing assistance. I also noted the number of people, young and old, in wheelchairs strategically seated as part of the congregation and not merely observers. Since I am part of a Chinese Jewish family I was comforted by the diversity I saw in age, gender and race.

   This was the first Rosh Hashanah without my mother. With my husband working and my daughters away at school I really needed this warm and welcoming synagogue community. With each prayer recited by the Rabbi and each note chanted by the Cantor I felt drawn more and more into the congregation.  I felt at home with the clergy and the congregants. I knew midway through the first service that even though we were part time residents and were members of another shul in Northern Westchester that I needed to join T&V.

An Open Book

Katalena Mermelstein-Knox

   My boyfriend and I clung to each other nervously as we ascended the stairs towards the sanctuary. As we were an interracial couple, I felt extra pressure to blend in, to prove myself capable. I put on a brave face for him, but the truth was I had no idea what to expect. Every shul is different, every community has their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. A community, like a person, is a living, changing thing, and I just didn’t know if we’d get along.

   As we entered the cavernous room, I was struck with the colors of the stained-glass windows, so like the ones that adorned the shul of my childhood, where, Bruch HaShem, I still attend High Holiday services with my parents. I was surprised by the number of congregants lining and dotting the rows, their heads bowed in silent prayer, holding their books like precious gifts.

   My heart sank. I was unwilling to interrupt anyone, to break the silence so carefully curated. I was supposed to be the gateway for my boyfriend, opening the door to see into Jewish life, but I felt a poor guide indeed. I didn’t know enough of the service to find my place in a siddur.

   We shuffled up at the back of the sanctuary, hesitant and invisible. At least, I thought we were. Yet a head turned towards us as we entered, and instead of returning to their solitary prayer, this man turned around, and handed us his book, opened to the current page, and without a word, pointed to the exact part the service was up to. Like a true mitzvah, done without the desire for reciprocation, he turned away, picked up a new book and found his place again.

   It was as if that gesture, that open book, set a precedent for how we should approach our new foray into Judaism. With open arms, open eyes, open minds, and open hearts. Sometimes, we pray in silence, standing all together, yet apart. Praying the same prayer, yet not in the same way. Saying the same words to ourselves, but feeling different things. This does not have to separate us. Silence isn’t always cold.

   Years later, my boyfriend had become my husband, and on one Shabbos morning, he looked over his shoulder to notice a hesitant, nervous soul enter the sanctuary. Without hesitation, my husband handed him his open book, and gestured to the page, and smiled and welcomed him in silence and community. T&V has continued to hand us open books, and we will continue to pass them along, for learning is never finished where passion remains.