Bais Berish

Mir Zenen Shul Yidden.

For many of us, shul is the centerpiece of our day. We open our eyes in the morning, mentally calculating which minyan to make for Shacharis.That is, unless you’re a creature of habit and have been making the same morning minyan for the last several decades. Many of us are like that too.

One of the most interesting aspects of the two shuls I have in mind is the nature of their genesis and how they fit so naturally and seamlessly into the pulse of our community.

As it turns out, people have strong and definitive feelings about the shuls they attend.

In many of our local shuls, attendance has been pretty much the same for many years. Some of these institutions have celebrated their centennial anniversaries, and in some cases even longer. Others are relatively new.

My theory is that there has been a shift in attitude regarding shul attendance in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic of 2020 and slightly beyond that. Those of us who were regular shul attendees found ourselves—as unbelievable as it is to think about today—forced to stay home as our shuls were hermetically sealed.

The combination of shul and Covid is now mostly a blur. But I still vividly recall several instances that are frozen in my mind. It was Pesach and I had put my tallis on in the morning and davened at home. There was no reading from the Torah as there was no minyan and no Torah. It was yom tov, but it was also a sad and lonely time.

We now know, four years later, that many of the precautions were extreme and unnecessary. Things like masking and the requirement to maintain a six-foot distance from other people were recently revealed to be arbitrary and without any basis in science though claims were made otherwise.

Slowly but surely as the restrictions eased, ragtag minyanim began to form here and there, mostly outdoors.

One morning as I was walking out of my house, a few blocks away, though still in my line of sight, I could see some heads slowly bopping around. I couldn’t tell what was going on until I moved a little closer to the site. What it looked like as best as I can recall was a group of people scattered at least six feet apart davening in a minyan.

It made sense. Our shuls were closed, though several had minyanim in a parking lot or a backyard. After all, we were told that indoors was not a safe place to pray, but as long as we were outdoors surrounded by fresh air and spread far apart, the possibility of transmitting the virus was minimal.

This is not a retroactive scientific analysis of Covid as it related to our daily minyanim, but the story about the evolution of a shul that got its start when other shuls seemed to be closed or operating on a limited schedule for far too long.

The driveway just a couple of blocks from mine belongs to Hannah and Berish Fuchs. That little front driveway minyan has now grown into one of the most attractive and enjoyable minyanim to attend on a regular basis. In fact, it has now become a full-fledged shul, and one of the most interesting aspects of this minyan is to chart its growth and progress as more people discovered it.

But first a few words about having your own private shul with all the amenities attached to your house. It has to be a nice and convenient thing, and that has to be valid on a few practical levels. Some of those are that you don’t have to walk too far to shul on Shabbos, and on the weekdays, if you live far away, you don’t have to look for parking. In addition, you can afford to misplace your umbrella or snow boots in case of inclement weather, which needs no explanation.

But these are the small things. This shul invigorates you from the moment you walk in. This makom tefillah is affectionately referred to as “Bais Berish” in honor of Berish Fuchs, and just observing what goes on here prior to and during davening is in and of itself a fascinating dynamic.

Berish is the leader and rav of the minyan, but everyone just calls him Berish and that sets the tone for what it means to daven here. When anyone walks in, Berish immediately makes eye contact with them and motions them in the direction of a seat where he feels they might be most comfortable.

I spoke to Berish and Hannah the other day, interested to find out how this got started. As I thought, it began during the waning days of Covid, when there was tremendous pressure on shuls to stay closed for whatever reason.

The pressure to loosen the Covid restrictions came from people who were observing the year of mourning for their parents and wanted to do whatever they could to recite Kaddish, which we are taught maintains a connection between the mourner and the soul of the parent as it finds its place in the Next World that by design, we have little understanding about.

“A neighbor was saying Kaddish for his mother when Covid struck and suddenly our shuls were closed,” said Berish. He explained that the neighbor asked if he could assemble ten people on his back porch, which was big enough and wide enough to allow a minyan to gather and maintain a distance of six feet between participants.

Hannah and Berish agreed to try it, and as shuls began to slowly open up, mostly with outdoor services, this minyan that I discovered in the driveway moved onto the back porch, but then as June and July arrived so did the hot weather.

The next step was to erect a tent with large air conditioners to keep the twenty or so attendees as cool as possible. Over the summer, as the popularity of the minyan increased, the Fuchs asked a contractor about the possibility of enclosing the back porch, which both Berish and Hannah said was rarely used anyway.

Since the shul was built to accommodate a Covid type of environment, most of the walls were constructed out of sliding glass doors. That way, when the weather is nice or even if it’s cool outside and you want an abundance of fresh air, you can achieve it by simply sliding the glass door.

And now, since Pesach, Bais Berish has undergone additional construction and is now twice its original size. For Berish and Hannah, the newly expanded shul is also a place to host family simchas as their grandchildren come of age.

Last week, a friend asked me where I usually davened, and when I told him I mostly attended Bais Berish, he asked me if you can just walk in and daven, or if you need to be invited. I told him that it is one of the most warm and welcoming places to daven, and he was welcome to try it any time.

Beit Midrash Hachaim Vehashalom

On the subject of shuls in the Five Towns, you cannot do an essay on the subject without referring to Beit Midrash Hachaim Vehashalom, the relatively new 24-hour minyan shul in Cedarhurst.

The impact this shul has had on communal tefillah is staggering. If this shul was in Brooklyn or Jerusalem, we would probably be referring to it as a “Minyan factory.” The downside for other shuls in the area is that they have to cut back on some of their late night Maariv minyanim because people just seem magnetically drawn to Chaim v’Shalom.

One of the additional attractive aspects about Chaim v’Shalom is that making a minyan there is not dissimilar to catching a minyan in Woodbourne or at the Kotel (okay, not a great comparison). The point is, and I think this is part of the draw, when you go to Chaim v’Shalom, you meet people from around the area whom you would not normally meet on a daily basis.

So, this is my tale of two shuls. Of course, there are many people involved in making certain that the shul runs as smoothly as it does. Our neighbor, Idel Kolodny, is the straw that stirs the drink. From the early morning when Rabbi Wachsman’s Kollel opens its doors at 5:30 a.m. until after Maariv, Idel is the go-to guy.

Another mainstay is Rabbi Shmuel Lichtenstein, the weekly ba’al koreh and ba’al tefillah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

On the second day of Shavuot last week, I arrived at Bais Berish a little early for Minchah. As I was sitting there, the door opened and a young man on his way to another shul stood there, scouring the room with his eyes. He saw me watching him and said, “You know, I walk by this place all the time, so I just wanted to stop and take a look inside.” He looked at the beautiful molding, the exquisite light fixtures, and the glass doors that reflected the late afternoon setting sun. His eyes kept darting around the room that serves as both shul and, when needed, outstanding simcha venue, and said, “This is one beautiful shul.” n


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