My Sanctuary in the American Exile



When the First Temple was destroyed, and we went into exile, the Prophet Ezekiel proclaimed the following Divine message regarding our dispersion:


“Though I have removed them far away among the nations, and though I have scattered them among the lands, yet I have been for them a small sanctuary in the lands where they arrived” (Ezekiel 11:16).


The commentator, Rabbi Yosef Kara, cites the tradition that the Divine promise of a “small sanctuary” for the exiled People of Israel is referring to the synagogues that they will establish in the lands of their dispersion. The commentator, Metzudas David, adds that Hashem is offering the exiled people the following words of comfort: I will cause My Shechinah to dwell within their synagogues.


Dear Friends,


The English term “sanctuary” can refer to a sacred place or a place of refuge. In this letter, I will describe how the synagogue of my childhood was a sacred place of communal prayer which also served as my place of refuge in the Christian neighborhood of Rockaway Beach, New York City. Rockaway Beach was located on the Rockaway Peninsula, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and Jamaica Bay on the other side.


Before we moved to Rockaway Beach, we were living in downtown Brooklyn. I was a frail child who was often sick, and in order to improve my health, the doctors recommended that we leave our downtown neighborhood and move to a neighborhood by the ocean. When I was eight years old, my family moved to the Hammels Project, a low-income housing development in Rockaway Beach, as it was close to the ocean. The project’s population was racially and ethnically mixed. Although Blacks formed the largest group in the project, there were also Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, and Jews. Most of the Jewish residents were elderly Yiddish-speaking couples who had immigrated to America in their youth, and there were only a small number of Jewish families with children.


The project has just been built; thus, all the residents were newcomers, and the children of the project were eager to meet each other and make friends. Most of the children began to attend services at the various churches in the neighborhood, and they were interested in learning about the religious beliefs of the other children they would meet. The Catholic and Protestant children were quite shocked to discover that I did not believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, for they were taught in their churches that people who did not have this belief could not go to heaven. In addition, they were taught that the Jews killed Jesus; thus, I was occasionally approached by children with the question: “Why did you Jews kill God?” I never could understand how one can “kill” God, but I always gave them the historical answer that my parents taught me: “It was the Romans who killed him.”


When I was age ten, Rabbi Gabriel Beer, the rabbi of our local synagogue, noticed my great interest in Torah study, and he persuaded my parents to send me to an Orthodox Jewish day school which was located a few miles away in Far Rockaway, New York. It was then that I began to wear my yarmulke on the streets of my neighborhood. This evoked some hostile reactions, and on a few occasions, I was pursued by gangs of boys who were yelling anti-Semitic insults. My father had a strong sense of Jewish pride, and he encouraged me to continue to wear the yarmulke. Another reason why he encouraged me was because he had fought all his life against racial or religious prejudice, and he therefore did not want me to be intimidated by the bigotry of others.


Despite these occasional conflicts, I managed to get along with the majority of the Christian children in the area. I sensed, however, that they viewed Jews as the “outsiders”; moreover, there were some negative stereotypes of Jews that had become part of the street culture of the neighborhood. Growing up Jewish in the Hammels Project was therefore a lonely experience, and there were other Jewish children in the project who felt the same way, which is why they hoped to eventually move out of the area.


I found some relief from this loneliness when I began to attend the services at our synagogue. When I was praying with my people, I felt like I was in a different world, and many of the prayers helped me to feel connected to Zion. The following English translations of excerpts from these Hebrew prayers can serve as examples:


“May You shine a new light on Zion, and may we all speedily merit its light.”


“And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You dwell within it as You have promised. And rebuild it soon in our days as an eternal structure, and speedily establish within it the throne of David. Blessed are You, Hashem, the Builder of Jerusalem.”


“Blessed are You, Hashem, Who returns His Shechinah to Zion.”


“From Your place, our Sovereign, You will appear and reign over us, for we await You. When will You reign in Zion?  Soon, in our days, forever and ever, may You dwell there. May You be exalted and sanctified within Jerusalem, Your city, from generation to generation and for all eternity. May our eyes see Your kingdom, as it is expressed in the songs of Your might by David, the anointed of Your righteousness: Hashem shall reign forever and ever – your God, O Zion – from generation to generation, Halleluyah! (Psalm 146:10). ”


My connection to Zion became intensified on the Festivals and on special Shabbos celebrations, when due to the larger turnout, the congregation prayed in the upper, large sanctuary which was decorated with beautiful murals which had scenes of our life in Zion during the biblical period. The combination of the prayers and the murals lessened my feeling of exile.


Several decades later, after I had moved to Jerusalem, I discovered the following teachings which awakened my childhood memories of praying in my neighborhood synagogue:  


Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar says: “In the future, the synagogues and houses of Torah study that are found in the Diaspora will be established in the Land of Israel.” (Talmud, Megillah 29a)


One of the classical commentators on the Talmud, the Maharsha, explains the above statement in the following manner:


When we enter a synagogue, we should feel like we are entering the Holy Temple in Zion, for in the messianic age, each synagogue will be re-established in Jerusalem and will be attached to the Holy Temple. This is why our sages say that the Holy Temple of the future will be the size of Jerusalem; moreover, the Jerusalem of the future will be the size of the Land of Israel. In this spirit, teaches the Maharsha, each of us in exile can say the following passage when we enter a synagogue:


“I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the House of Hashem.’ Our feet stood firm within your gates, O Jerusalem. The built up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together.” (Psalm 122:1-3)



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


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