The Shul at City Island
A fortuitous Shabbat trek to a quirky synagogue in the Bronx
The first time I went to City Island, in the Bronx, there were mostly locals on the Bx29, but three obvious sets of day-trippers sat in their seats awaiting a place more touristy than what was to come. With no kitsch, the streets in City Island are quiet and lined with antique shops and ice-cream parlors, with quaint houses, and bait-and-tackle shops.
It was odd to see a small synagogue right on the main road, proudly named City Island Avenue. It’s a small brick building, and inside there were just a few rows of red portable chairs, a small bimah, and a lobby with a guestbook on a table scattered with pamphlets. I picked up a business card and made a plan to come back for a Shabbat service, because, of course.
On the Friday night, I arrived late to the 7:30 p.m. service at Temple Beth-El, or “The Shul by the Sea.” But as I rushed up the stairs to the main foyer, I heard no praying and no singing. I peeked inside and saw no candles lit and no red chairs filled. There were only two people inside, both wearing wide smiles. An older woman named Violet took my cold hands in her warm ones and asked me why I had come to this small shul in City Island. I explained, but she didn’t seem to care. She was just happy to have another guest. Violet came close and whispered, “I’m not even Jewish!” The shul is open to anyone; any denomination, sexual orientation, and faith. If you want to go to Temple Beth-El, Temple Beth-El wants you there.
The other man in the room was Mike. He was younger and more nervous than Violet. He explained that the rabbi who often leads the service, Rabbi Shohama, wasn’t leading tonight. So, tonight, for the first time, Mike was in charge.
A bit later, two more arrived. A woman, who Violet claimed as a fellow non-Jew, and a man, sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with World War II insignia. They explained and explained and explained that this was not a representative service at Temple Beth-El. Why yes, when the Rabbi is not in, seldom is there a crowd. But, when she’s there, it’s magical, Violet said. And when there’s a bar mitzvah, forget about it! It’s fantastic.
“Please come back on July 19 for the Service by the Sea, it’s really something,” said Violet. “Come back when the Rabbi is here. She leads such a beautiful service,” she said. But when the service finally began, I quickly realized I had accidentally chosen the right night.
Mike began to lead; his voice shaky. Tentative prayers in English were followed by soft, timid songs in Hebrew. Violet sometimes sang in a high tone, while the man in the hat sometimes hummed boldly. But they wouldn’t stop when a song lost luster. They’d continue, mouths moving, singing inaudibly. When it seemed like the song was about to die out, one of the four would add their voice, bringing just the right amount of power to finish the prayer.
It was unclear whether they didn’t know the prayers, or were too shy to sing them. What was clear was the sheer devotion to the service. It reminded me of the old Jewish proverb, The Boy Who Prayed With the Alphabet. The boy, not educated in Torah study, recited the aleph bet, the only Hebrew he knew in a Shabbat service. While his father was embarrassed, the rabbi told him that God would understand and would take the boy’s letters and turn them into a prayer.
In the small brick shul, when others wouldn’t come, those four were there. They weren’t the most shabbos-savvy, but they showed up to this small service, waxed sentimental about the shul’s presence in their lives, about its inclusivity, and about those other weeks, when there were special services, not realizing this, tonight’s, was one of them.
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