Alissa first joined Central in 1981 but left when she moved to Westchester County later that decade. She happily returned (virtually from Chicago) in the midst of the pandemic in mid-2020, and plans to move home to NYC soon.
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Rolling up a leg of her pantyhose in anticipation of coaxing it on to her left foot, she groaned as an errant fingernail snagged the delicate material. Cursing softly, she stood up, tossed the ruined pair in the garbage and pulled another out of the top drawer. She was showered, her makeup applied - to the extent she was willing to wear it - and it was time to decide what to wear. Freshly graduated from law school and newly settled into a small but adequate Manhattan studio apartment at 56th and Lex, tonight she would attend a Selichot service at Central Synagogue for the first time, and she remembered what her mother had said about the importance of first impressions. There would be a reception in the lobby of the Community House before the service, and there she hoped to start making some new friends.
The purple suit, or the navy one? Black was her usual safe go-to choice, but it wasn’t really appropriate for Selichot. Was anything other than white really appropriate for Selichot? She sighed. Where was her mother when she needed her? She could call, but no, it was past time for her to make these decisions herself, and she definitely didn’t want to face a mom interrogation tomorrow. Better not to open that can of worms. Glancing in the closet at the two suits hanging limply side by side, she chose the purple. May as well show some Williams pride, she thought. Perhaps hearkening back to college days would ease her butterflies. She finished dressing quickly, slipped on her comfy black pumps and confirmed via a quick glance in the bathroom mirror that her hair was not more unruly than usual. Stuffing her keys, medical insurance card and driver’s license in her jacket pockets, she walked out to begin her Central journey.
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For several years, I have been fascinated by Rabbi Buchdahl — a woman rabbi heading one of the most prominent Reform congregations in the country, a rabbi who is part-Korean and preaches on the same pitch as she sings — superbly.
I began courting the Rabbi via Skype at Kol Nidrei and Yizkor services. The look of calm, of peace on her face; the confidence as she overcame the young cantor with whom she sang; also talented, but overmatched by Rabbi Buchdahl's soaring voice of a dozen colors.
Like Central Synagogue, itself, Rabbi Buchdahl stood apart from others, the architecture, exquisite arches and bold windows were mirrored in her eloquent style and in the ingenuity of her voice. I was smitten. I wanted to know her; I wanted to be her friend. If The Times Book Review asked me to select five dinner guests, I'd begin and end with Rabbi Buchdahl.
Our age-difference would be overcome but what of her husband and Gabriel, Eli and Rose? Would she be able to hold onto the Temple itself? I could stalk services and events but, at some point, I'd have to join, which, I fear is beyond my charitable capability. So, year-after-year, I remained her face to screen Skype mate.
Through sad occasion, the Pandemic brought us closer together. My longtime friend Jill Edelson died. Covid confined her to Lenox Hill Hospital for several weeks, followed by the same at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale. I spoke to her throughout and then at home, where she seemed weaker than during rehab. A week later, she died of Pancreatic Cancer.
The Zoom Memorial Service was led by Rabbi Buchdahl. I spoke of Jill and the Rabbi said she was touched by our friendship. David and Cindy provided my long-awaited introduction and we had our moment. Then, at the beginning of High Holiday services, Skype broadcast an empty sanctuary, empty of all but Rabbi Buchdahl who spoke exquisitely of the times. She spoke to all of us directly, she spoke to me.
A Table in Main/A Career Unfulfilled
The house appeared as described, a rambling early-20th Century gray clapboard, white trimmed windows, flowerboxes filled with cascading petunias and trailing morning glories of velvety purples, deep blues and soft pinks. The house sat almost precariously perched on the easternmost rocks of Bailey Island, Maine. “Next stop, Ireland,” the locals liked to say for all that you could see ahead was the Atlantic, massive and unforgiving.
Entering through the back door, my eyes fell on a farmhouse table, rough hewn and partially sunlit by a side window. In the middle, sat an old pewter bowl unevenly draped with a blue and white checkered napkin. Three ripe mangoes filled the inside, fragrantly beckoning forward. To take one would destroy the symmetry of the arrangement and, somehow the table and dining area, in which it sat.
For the next 10 days, that table is where we’d eat 2-3 meals a day, learn about each other, do our writing exercises and, hopefully, begin a project that would eventually produce a memoir. I was one of eight promising writers picked from an Intro to Memoir class at The New School in Greenwich Village. I knew two others in the group, our ages and writing experience varying greatly but all of us with an equal place and role at that table. And hope of promise fulfilled. That promise, now twenty years old, discarded as a demanding new job and a new relationship encroached on my limited free hours and remaining energy. Looking back, I realize how much I’ve missed that table.
My name is Liz Kadin and my husband, Richard, and I have been members of Central for the past 6 years. My sister, Peggy Tanner, also a member of Central, introduced me to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and her beautiful voice many years ago when she, Angela, was a cantor leading Sharing Shabbat services for young families at a temple in Westchester.
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“Please come and join me at Sharing Shabbat” said my sister. “It feels like being at camp and singing around a campfire”. Since our earliest days, my sister and I have had a special bond built on love, friendship and trust. Even during times when we were developing our own interests, we continued to value each other’s judgment. So, when the invitation was extended, I agreed to attend even though I was not a member of her Westchester temple nor was I planning to bring my family to what was a family oriented event.
I remember entering the room. Light was streaming in from each of the many windows surrounding this beautiful space. The walls were engraved with Hebrew sayings and you could hear a din of chatter coming from the many people gathered as they greeted each other. My eyes scanned the room, as I worked to conceal some nervousness, until I found my sister and her family. They had saved a seat for me.
A few minutes later, a woman strumming a guitar began to sing. It was the sound of an angel. Perfectly pitched, upbeat, singing catchy tunes. Within moments, I was absorbed, moved, happy in the moment and feeling the joy. Unlike the experience at my then current temple, where the cantor sang beautifully, but to a relatively passive audience, these congregants knew all of the words and were singing along with gusto. Before I knew it, I, too, was humming along and swaying to the music. If I had known the lyrics, my voice would have soared to the rafters.
That singer was Cantor Angela Buchdahl, years before she came to Central Synagogue and before she was ordained as a Rabbi. Cantor Buchdahl did not know it on that day, nor did I, but that gathering changed my life. It was the day that a service came to life and made me feel something. I do not know if that feeling was spiritual, but it was without question, inclusive, warm and uplifting, and I knew I wanted more.
I had come to a gathering years ago as an outsider, hesitant to be noticed. I am now a member of Central and happy to be noticed. Someday, when we once again have in-person services, I hope that you will come and take a seat next to me. We can sing together.
Fredi and her husband Ron have been members of Central for a year and a half. Before retiring, Fredi was an elementary school teacher for over 30 years. She loves the inspirational words and heartfelt music offered by the clergy and the variety of wonderful and thought-provoking programs. She feels blessed to be part of this community.
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The sanctuary is majestic – large, Moorish, blazing with blues and rusts forming a myriad of geometric tile patterns which fill my eyes. So different from the Central Synagogue in the Long Island suburbs with its sanctuary of cerulean blue calm where I prayed and learned, rejoiced and cried for so many years. How do you carve out your niche in a new place after 33 years? Where do you begin to find a space to nurture your spirit after all those years of prayers and baby-namings, b’nai mitzvah and confirmations, joy and sadness? It is the sadness that settles over me now. My sweet boy gone too soon. It was his home more than mine and even as this 27th yahrzeit settles in, my missing him is not diminished. I sit and listen to my breath as the silent prayer envelopes the congregation. It is quiet in the space but my head is a cacophony of memories. The people I have met here are warm – the clergy wise and compassionate. The music has stirred my soul, yet in that moment I feel so alone. No one knows my story or the story of this sweet , kind, prayerful young man. Suddenly an image of Alex’s smile floats into my mind and I feel replenished. I open my eyes and immediately focus on the Rabbi and the Cantor - both patiently waiting for me. A tender nod of her head and a slight smile on his lips, let me know they understand what is in my heart. The sweet sounds of Shalom Rav begin to fill the sanctuary. It is the Camp Eisner version – the one Alex sang and played and loved so very much. And now it is filling this sanctuary with notes of joy and love. The magic of that tune and time are coursing through my heart - Alex’s spirit gracefully woven into a new tapestry. And in that moment I hear whispers of welcome , join with this community. I too have found a new home- a new Central Synagogue. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Eleanor (Elli) Siegel
I have been a member of Central for 24 years, having joined with my husband Art, after meeting Rabbi Peter Rubenstein at a wedding for friends, at which Peter officiated. Art enjoyed knowing the Rabbis Peter, Angela and Moe; we went with Peter and Kerry to Israel during the second Intifada in 2002, when everyone except us and one other couple backed out of the trip. Art often shared email exchanges with Angela and Moe, notably about Israel. I wrote this essay as a thank you to Peter, Angela, Moe, and to the Central community.
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Love and Central Synagogue
I am in the middle of my new life. Not that I disliked my old life. I loved it; it was a wonderful love story that ended tragically as beautiful love stories do. But let me start before the end. Let me tell you how Central was there for me when I needed a new life.
On August 10, 2020 I found my husband, Art, unconscious, lying peacefully on the bedroom carpet, as if he were asleep. Taken by ambulance, he was admitted to NY Presbyterian hospital, and put on a ventilator to give him a chance for recovery, the doctors said. No such luck for us. Art had been clear with me and our children about what he wanted; he left written instructions and told us verbally that he “never wanted to live” so disabled that he could no longer have “the ability to spot and react to unintentional or intended misstatements in the NYTimes or on any other issue of importance to me.” He spotted those unintentional or intended misstatements daily, it seemed, and he would instantly write to the Times and its executive editor.
In the hospital, I leaned over the still unconscious Art, and told him we – our three children, grandchildren, my sister and brother-in-law - would give him the gift of love, to let him go. The doctors clearly told us that life as Art had known it would be impossible. I reached out to Rabbi Moe Salth, who knew Art; he cried on that phone call. Moe sent me a prayer to be read over a dying person, which I read over Art twice. Although that prayer spoke about wrongdoing and I could not think of one act of wrongdoing that Art ever performed. I told Moe that Art wanted his funeral at Central; twenty-four hours later Central agreed we could hold the funeral in the Sanctuary. COVID was at an ebb. Our family was at Central, while relatives and friends could attend by Zoom. Moe warmly and lovingly officiated; Angela attended by video, lending her spiritual presence and her beautiful voice. Both Angela and Moe had personally known Art. They made our profound loss bearable.
After my treasured husband’s funeral, I began my incredibly special journey with Central. Though Central was certainly meaningful before (I had joined a book club through Central) after Art died, I signed up for a wonderful Talmud class. Rosh Hashanah services, barely one month after Art died, were a surprise because I had expected to be miserably sad, not enriched.
Now, nine months later, I know how much more Central means to me and how important this community is to my new life.
Sylvia has been a member of Central Synagogue since 2002, when she and her late husband Walter Austerer, moved to New York, and grateful ever since for being part of the wonderful Central family. She was born in Poland and came here as a very small child during World War II. She is Professor Emerita of Epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and continues working on her research and mentoring students and junior faculty.
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I Am Jewish
Professor Edmund Zawacki was Chairman of Slavic Languages at the University of Wisconsin and my father’s friend from Poland. At my father’s request, he met me and Stella, my friend, who was also Polish, at the Madison train station to help us find lodgings for the summer session we had come to attend after our graduation from Hunter High School. We drove through the town out to the University campus. It was in the mid 1950s in late June. Everything was blooming and the fields we passed were rich with growing vegetables, early corn plants, flowering apple trees.
Professor Zawacki, a Roman Catholic in his late forties, was fairly tall, well-built and quite handsome, with a broad forehead, intelligent face, and dark, somewhat curly hair. He was genial and warm and welcoming and full of information about university life. How different this was from New York, how green and beautiful and peaceful, how vast the lake seemed. At last, he pulled up in front of a large house with several steps leading up to Ionic columns in front of a big front porch, and behind that, an elaborate door.
“This is the sorority where we will get you rooms. Most of the dorms are closed for the summer. I know the housemother. Let’s go in. We’ll get you registered and unload your suitcases afterwards.”
He leaped up the steps and we followed meekly behind. Inside the circular foyer there was a vase of fresh flowers on a round table in the center, and behind that, a reception desk. The housemother came out to greet us, a tall, thin woman, perhaps 50 years old, with brown-grey hair in a bun and a flowered dress and sensible heels. She had a warm smile and gave us forms to fill out.
“You will like it here” she said, “We have very nice girls from good families.”
We filled out the long forms and on the line that said Religion, we put down Jewish. We handed the forms to the housemother. Her face registered surprise, as she looked at Stella who had long blond hair with a curl in it and blue eyes, and then looked at me, with my dark brown, almost black hair and brown eyes – two attractive, young women, like any of the college students she supervised as housemother. Her face became a blank mask. The smile had disappeared.
“I am sorry” she said to Professor Zawacki. “We don’t have any rooms after all.”
“I see,” he said to the housemother. “I made a mistake. We will find another place. Come girls, I know of a beautiful house.”
We followed him out and down the steps almost running back to the car.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “I am taking you to Alpha Epsilon Phi – it is the Jewish sorority. A beautiful house and you will be much happier there.”
We did not speak until we got to the other house, where we registered quickly, were assigned our rooms, met some of the girls who had come out to greet us, and finally said good-bye to Professor Zawacki. We thanked him but he was flustered and embarrassed.
I never told anyone about the incident. It would not be polite to talk about it. Also, I was ashamed. It seemed like I had done something wrong, something shameful. This was not so long after the war. It was a time when people did not talk about what had driven them to be refugees. And yet I still vividly remember that sense of humiliation.
Howard Altarescu and his wife Carol have been members of Central Synagogue for about eight years. After their first exposure to high holiday services in Central's Community House annex, they and their children have enjoyed Central's high Holliday, and Shabbat services both at Lincoln Center and in the main sanctuary, and they all have enjoyed Rabbi Buchdahl’s weekly meditation sessions. Howard has also enjoyed Rabbi Berman‘s weekly Bible and Bagels program and a recent memoir writing workshop presented by Rabbi Berman and Lauren Dickel.
The Warmth and Meaning of Judaism
Our first high holiday service at Central Synagogue was in 2011. Carol and I had moved to the City after our kids were grown, and we looked for a synagogue that, as Carol put it, “would be meaningful for us and also a place the kids will want to go to.” As for me, I yearned to recreate the warm and meaningful synagogue experience my father had created for me fifty years prior.
We applied for membership at Central and, as Central’s sterling reputation was well known to us, we were undaunted by the expected two year waitlist. While on the waitlist, we attended high holiday services at the synagogue’s Community House annex. Carol and I arrived early for our first Central Rosh Hashanah service. Walking in, I said “let’s sit in the front row”. I wanted to diminish the chance of distractions, for any of us.
Our three kids had no love for their Hebrew School or synagogue experiences growing up in the New York City suburbs. One described their Hebrew School as “rote and cold”. None of them had any use for the constant stream of baseball metaphors from the bimah. Though skeptical about yet another synagogue experience to suffer through, and despite the demands of their work schedules, which continued without regard for the Jewish high holidays, we are a very close family and so our kids joined us at the service that morning.
Although the sanctuary in the annex was missing the majesty of Central’s main sanctuary, we were in a warm and inviting setting, and we were greeted by joyous music that enveloped us all and created the perfect tempo for the morning. As they assembled, the congregants emitted a perfect mix of familiarity with each other and anticipation for the service. Warm greetings, pats on the back and the laughter of children filled the room.
When the service began, Carol and I and our kids were immediately overwhelmed. The tone was one of joy, warmth and inclusion. The singing was beautiful. And we were all especially moved and impressed by Rabbi Lisa Rubin, a young woman the same age as my daughter, who delivered an uplifting, thoughtful, and progressive sermon. RabbiRubin spoke of “fairness and morality”, “the liberal Jewish commitment to tikkun olam”,and the need ”to expose ourselves to the classic works of the world—the literature, music, and art of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals, and visionaries that shaped civilization.” My daughter leaned over and whispered to me, “She is great!” After the service, my daughter and each of the boys hugged me, and one said, “Thanks for encouraging us to be here.”
My Dad and I had attended services together in various synagogues when I myself was a kid. While we were an infrequently observing Jewish family, I felt that there was great meaning to my Dad and me being in the sanctuary with each other. I felt this even more so when as an adult we attended services together. I’ve recently reflected on my grandfather who came to America in 1905 from Romania, likely orthodox and Yiddish speaking. I have thought of what it must have meant for him to have my Dad attending shul with him as a new arrival to this country.
I savor to this day the time I spent in the synagogue years ago with my Dad. That morning in 2011 at Central Synagogue gave me the opportunity to expose my kids to the warmth and meaning of Judaism - embodied in the service that morning - as my Dad had done for me so many years ago.