An Alt-Neu Synagogue in Asheville

A few days ago, Gail and I had the pleasure of worshiping at our renovated Beth Israel synagogue building in the style of a 1st cent. Palestinian synagogue. The transformation is stunning and, in my opinion, well done. Its new architectural layout, though new but really old, symbolizes “community” much better than the previous one.

The words “new” and “old” hold a special meaning for me as they send me back to my native country and its special Jewish heritage.

As you know, I am a native of what was Czechoslovakia before WW II and is now the Czech Republic. Its capital Prague, or in Czech Praha, is often considered the most beautiful city of Europe. No exaggeration here!

We, Czech Jews, or better, the few of us who survived the Holocaust, have the honor of boasting to have in Prague Europe’s oldest active synagogue, known as the Altneuschul or in Czech Staronova synagoga. The building was completed in 1270 which means that it has been standing there for many centuries before America was discovered.

The synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue, but later, when other synagogues were built in Prague in the16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue or in German or Yiddish Alt-NeuSchul.

But there is another explanation for the name that is more intriguing. This other explanation derives the name Alt-Neu from the Hebrew al tnai which means “on condition that….” Notice the similarity of pronunciation: Alt-Neu and al tnai,

Where then do the Hebrew words come from and what is their meaning? According to legend, angels brought stones from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem to help with the building of the Prague synagogue “on condition” or, in Hebrew al tnay, that they be returned when mashiach-Messiah comes and these stones will be needed for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.

Which of the two interpretations of the synagogue’s name seems correct in your opinion?

The Prague Alt-NeuSchul is also renown for housing under its roof the body of the lifeless Golem, the robot constructed by the synagogue’s famous rabbi called the MaHaRal which is an acronym for Moreynu HaRav Loew, meaning “Our Teacher Rabbi Loew. “ The legend has it that Rabbi Loew made the Golem, a huge powerful robot, to protect the Jewish population of Prague during pogroms.

As my mind wanders back to the Alt-NeuSchul in Prague, I am especially attracted by the Hebrew inscription on one of its stucco walls. There, in Hebrew, we read, shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid, which means, “I will hold Adonay before me always” or, “I place God before me always” ( Psalm 16:8).

This text is often written on meditative representations on tapestries, decorative plaques or on an illustrated page in the siddur or prayer book. It is this text that has inspired me to make the many dozens of mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) that now adorn the entrances to many a Jewish home here and elsewhere and even some of the door frames of our newly renovated Beth Israel synagogue in Asheville.

So why mention all this here and now? Because our synagogue, just like the one in Prague, has now become an Old-New synagogue, an AltNeuSchul and, as some of you know from many a dvar Torah or sermon I have given, and from my memoir published on my 90th birthday and beautifully celebrated in this place of worship, I am a secular Jew, but a Jew! When I contemplate this beautiful text that carries in its heart the name of Hashem, I think not of God as a person but rather as a metaphor for all the Jewish values we Jews admire, honor and try to act out in our lives.

The Altneuschul in Prague has been an active place of worship for almost one thousand years. As a place of worship it has inspired tens of thousands of worshipers and tourists. I am sure that the world has greatly benefited from its existence. It is my hope that our Asheville AltNeuSchul will do the same for our community and the many visitors who worship with us over time.

It is my hope that the Prague synagogue’s inscription shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid will guide our Jewish peoples’ lives and bring a bit of tikkun olam or “repair of the world” to our local society and beyond.

Tree of Life and Place of Death

One of the most inspirational moments for me in the Sabbath morning worship service occurs when we return the Torah scroll that has been read from to the ark, a special cupboard where the scrolls are kept. What I am referring to more specifically is the beautiful liturgical song, sung before the Torah ark is closed which reads in Hebrew:

etz chayyim hi la-machizikim bah v’tomkhekha m’ushar.

D’rakheha darkhei no’am v’kol n’tivoteha shalom.

Hashivenu Adonai elekha v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem.

Translation below:

“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it and all who uphold it are blessed. Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. Help us turn to you, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old.”

The “it” in the song refers to the contents of the Torah which contains the Pentateuch, i.e., the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy, wisdom to live by.

It is likely that on October 27, 2018 the bullets that murdered the group of eleven innocent Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh did their deadly work either before or after the above song was joyously sung by the victims. In an instant joy was turned into tragedy. Happy family and societal relationships turned into irreversible loss and mourning. Obscenity!

In the reporting of this horrible crime by the media it was mentioned that police investigators found in Robert Bowers’ on-line postings rabidly antisemitic statements. He purportedly voiced the wish that all Jews be killed.

That antisemitism has been around for 20 centuries is nothing new, of course. But from being an antisemite to murdering innocent human beings is a major step and I cannot help but wonder what the trigger to take that step may have been.

Discussions followed this terrible act as to what extent Trump’s rude and aggressive rhetoric contributed to Bowers’ decision to kill Jews. Some of these voices insisted that Trump’s behavior had absolutely nothing to do with it while others pointed to the seemingly increased number of antisemitic incidents in America and overseas since Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and his bullyish rhetoric ever since then.

No one in the media discussions, as far as I know, found any connection between several of Bowers’ Internet-posted hateful references to HIAS, the American Jewish organization whose name is the acronym for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” and Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant abusive language.

 


 

For me the word “Immigrant” in the name HIAS immediately rang a bell. Had not Trump, especially during several weeks preceding the midterm elections, daily vituperated against the terrible dangers of the so-called caravan of south American refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who were marching toward our southern border with Mexico with the intention of “invading” us? This is not all. Again and again Trump emphasized the dangerous make up of this caravan containing murderers, thieves and rapists, i.e., the very lowest societal elements of these Latin-American countries. By sending thousands of soldiers in battle gear to our southern border in order to “defend” the country, he has tried to instill fear in us from these unwanted would be immigrants – clearly a Trump-stunt to turn the mid-term election in favor of the Republican Party and himself, the great white savior. I feel relieved that he did not succeed.

A parenthesis: Undoubtedly, many of our fellow Americans are misled about the immigration fear. A very quick calculation shows how ridiculous this incitement of fear really is. The US population stands at this time somewhere around 340 million people. The alleged caravan consisting of people who are fleeing for their lives – some 7,000 people, mostly women and children – amount to 0.002 % of our population. And so an inundation of the US by these refugees is laughably unlikely.

According to the FBI, an estimated 17,250 murders took place in the US in 2016, committed by our own people – Americans. Statistics show that the US saw a 118% increase in its immigrant population (documented and undocumented) from 1980 through 2016 according to the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. Yet during this same period, the rate of violent crime – homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults – fell by 36% to about 386 incidents per 100,000 residents. This shows that the violent crime during this period actually declined while the immigration rate rose.

I have strayed from the heartbreaking murder in Pittsburgh and I apologize.

What I suggest is that it is indeed very probable that Trump’s politically oriented abusive anti-immigrant hate is racism which surfaces every time he leaves the teleprompter and speaks from his heart, and that these repeated explosions of loathing did have a significant influence on Bowers’ decision to massacre the Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers’ mentions of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, points in that direction.

Words have consequences!