Back in early spring 2009, I remember walking out of the NICU ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto, feeling unsure and worried over the future prospects for my newborn premature triplets who lay there naked and hooked up to various monitors and tubes in their incubators. As I walked past the lobby, I saw a narrow hallway that lead to the in-hospital synagogue. I remember standing at the entrance, wanting so badly to go in and pray and possibly talk to the rabbi in there, hoping for some comfort from a person of faith. But I never ended up going in. I was too afraid. I was unsure whether it was even allowed for me as a non-Jew to go into a synagogue, especially uninvited. I simply walked out of the hospital and on to the cold streets.
I remembered that incident as I drove in the rain from my home to the home of Loretta and Roy Tanenbaum, who had kindly volunteered to accompany me to Sabbath service at a traditional conservative synagogue in Toronto. I navigated through the rush hour gridlock to reach Toronto. As I got off the highway ramp, I passed by a homeless man with a sign asking for monetary assistance. A little later, as I waited at a traffic light, a disabled man and woman attempted to cross the uneven ground in their electric wheelchairs. I couldn’t help but sigh. The world was being the world, still going round despite being full to the brim with pain and hardships.
It was still drizzling and chilly outside as I pulled on to the Tanenbaums’ driveway. Loretta had previously emailed me, telling me to park on their driveway so we could walk over to the synagogue, which was just a few block away from their home. But seeing that it was raining, I assumed we would just drive over, and once inside, I offered to take them in my car. Loretta and Roy told me that they had to walk despite the rain, since they were keeping Sabbath.
the candles lit for Sabbath
Feeling a little embarrassed at my ignorance about this Jewish observance, I wondered if I seemed insensitive to them.
I was a bit worried about walking in the cold rain, as I had forgotten my jacket in a rush when leaving from home. But Loretta melted my heart with her kindness, insisting I borrow her rain coat for the walk. I probably would have gotten sick if she hadn’t lent me her coat for the walk. I gratefully accepted it and we made our way up the street to the synagogue. At some point I asked Loretta if her and Roy walked to the synagogue even in the freezing temperatures of the frigid winters that just went by. She told me that they did indeed walk to the synagogue. I found that unbelievable! Much of winter brought temperatures of minus thirty degrees celsius! It was too cold to even step out of one’s house to get into one’s car. I cannot imagine Roy and Loretta, especially at their age, braving the frigid temperatures to walk to the synagogue. But at the same time, their commitment to their faith filled me with deep respect for them. They must truly have a lot of love and respect for God to fully commit to keeping Sabbath.
the walk in the rain
As we approached Beth Tzedec Congregation, I was surprised to see that it did not appear to be a Jewish or a religiously affiliated centre. It looked like an ordinary community centre, but albeit a very big one.
As we walked in, I noticed the small congregation walking into the chapel for prayers. Loretta had already mentioned that Friday night sessions were always small, and held at the chapel, whereas the Saturday morning service was very big and held inside the sanctuary. We walked into a neat room filled with pews, with the backs of the benches lined with religious texts and prayer books.
We sat down in one of the middle pews, and I placed my scarf loosely around my head. Loretta was wearing her hat to service while Roy had his Yarmulke on. Nobody stared at me, which was a definite plus and allowed me to relax. Everyone seemed busy in greeting their friends and getting seated. It was a relaxed atmosphere.
The room had very high ceilings and the front of the room had a podium and curtains, along with a glass case with multiple stars of David. There was also a large candle-like light above the glass case.
The service was actually two services back to back. It was a very different experience from praying at a mosque, because our prayer takes about 5 to 10 minutes (unless it’s the special night prayers at the mosque during Ramadan) and then we leave. But at the synagogue, there were many prayers and hymns recited. We stood up and sat down, and sometimes worshippers made bowing motions with their heads. The prayers were recited strictly in Hebrew, but I was able to savor their meanings by following along the translations in the prayer-book. The prayers were mostly glorifying God and asking for His help in being devout. Then there were prayers for the Hebrew prophets (peace be upon them all), and then some more glorifying and praising God. I remember a beautiful portion of prayer, where God is referred to as Soul Mate. It really moved me, and I felt like it truly captured the essence of the relationship between human beings and God.
At times, I got lost listening to the rhythmic recitation of the prayers, unable to concentrate on the translation, my vision blurring, and my mind would be somewhere mysterious, yet comforting.
There was a moment when everyone turned to the front door, as the door opened and a couple in mourning walked in. A small lady held back her tears as she walked in. She was mourning the death of her father. I felt sad for her. I am still blessed to have both my parents in my life, but I could only imagine how much pain she must have been in. It is never easy losing one’s parents no matter how old we get.
The service concluded as the head rabbi made some announcements about upcoming events. I liked how he seemed very relaxed and easy going. He even made some light jokes with the other rabbi at the service, and everyone laughed. It was at that time that I wished that more imams could include some light humor in their service and when dealing with the congregants.
As we walked out of the hall, Roy took me on a short tour of the main sanctuary. Even though the lights were mostly turned off inside, I gasped with surprise at the humongous size of it. It looked like a large concert hall with his endless rows of seating and extremely high ceilings. Roy told me that it seated up to 3300 people! It was a real marvelous sight.
As we came out of the sanctuary we took a few minutes outside the prayer chapel to speak to the two rabbis presiding over the service. They were very kind and friendly and asked me about my experience. They also told me that I was always welcome to come visit when ever I wanted. Their kind hospitality meant a lot to me. It really added to the positive experience I had thus far. Roy was super generous and gentlemanly, helping me put on my rain coat before we left the building.
Loretta and Roy were kind enough to invite me for dinner at their place, and I was happy to be heading back to enjoy a good meal with them. They had also invited a couple who is one of their close friends to share the meal with us.
It was wonderful meeting David and Etta Nitkin at the Tanenbaum residence. Everyone did a hand washing ritual in the kitchen. There were also prayers recited before the meal. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and a bit of guilt, as Loretta had made a lot of food. Roy and Loretta had just returned a day before from Boston after spending Passover with their daughter, and I was very amazed at how much work Loretta had put into the meal. There was delicious challah bread, sparkling grape juice, squash, rice, roast chicken, an amazing gravy with carrots and lemon in it, and Etta had brought over an amazing broccoli salad and chocolate chip meringues for dessert.
We had really good conversations over dinner. We filled in each other on our latest projects, and some life stories. They expressed their appreciation for the work that I am doing and for coming out to experience Jewish worship with them. It felt great to be valued for my efforts. After dinner and dessert, there were closing prayers, and we headed to the door to leave.
I had one last moment of embarrassment as I asked to be photographed with the Tanenbaums, only to realize that they could not press the button on my phone camera. Etta came up with the brilliant idea of taking a “selfie.” So I took a few selfies with Tanenbaums and one that also included the Nitkins. As we stood at the front entrance, jokes were laughed at, handshakes were passed around, and all the ladies hugged each other before parting.
That night I felt the love and care of my Jewish hosts. But I also intuitively felt their own longing to be loved, to be understood, and to be accepted by others. Well my Jewish brother and sisters, know that this Muslim woman fully loves and accepts you because we were created and are sustained by the same One loving God, and because our prophets (peace be upon them) were compassionate and kind people, so I have every reason to be compassionate and kind to you. May God allow us all to see and treat each other as the family that we are. Ameen.
I would like to say a special thank you to my friend David Schacht from the Facebook forum “Abraham’s Tent,” without whom I would not have met the Tanenbaums, nor had this amazing experience. So thank you David! Also, a big thank you to Miriam Spitzer for being kind enough to trust a complete stranger to connect me with her parents, the Tanenbaums. Thank you, Miriam! 🙂
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