M y father’s kehillah expressed devotion by driving to Shabbos services — but their loyalty sustained a shul that stood for all the right things

After my father shlita and my rebbi z”l, the shul of my youth, of which my father was the rabbi, may be the most significant factor in my development as a Jew. This would appear to be unlikely, since that shul’s lay leadership was, at that time, a group of devoted but largely nonobservant people.

How does one love Jews who live entirely differently than you do? How does one articulate Jewish principles and concepts to people who lack the vocabulary to understand them? How does one learn to believe in the potential of a Jew who seems not to move forward in his observance over a period of many years? Even more challenging: How does one learn to discern — and emulate — positive character traits in people who eat treif and cannot read a pasuk of Chumash?

The shul of my youth — Congregation Beth Jacob of Atlanta — taught me that there are answers to these questions.

Not that memories of my childhood shul are so ponderous. They are memories of fragrances and flavor, of larger-than-life characters, of humorous personalities, of ignorance gone wild.

Fragrance: My earliest shul memory is olfactory, not pertaining to image or event. Whenever I encounter a certain scent, I immediately remember Bess Harstein, Sisterhood president and devoted volunteer, who wore only one kind of perfume, it seemed, throughout the entire 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. (I believe I detected that perfume when I officiated at her funeral.) The fragrance instantly transports me back to a time when she, and a handful of other women, seemed endlessly to be in the shul kitchen and office, volunteering to do what is now done by hired hands, and always finding time to fawn over us, the Rabbi’s children, while nurturing their little Orthodox shul.

Flavor: The fish balls served at kiddush often turned a bit sour by the time they were offered again at Shalosh Seudos, probably suffering from a lack of refrigeration between Mussaf and Minchah. Shul was like that for me — a place of nurture that was sometimes “off,” filled with a cadre of people whose devotion was evidenced by their regular attendance but whose lack of Jewish education was expressed in their off-center tefillin and mispronounced words, or even creation of new ones.

Creative ignorance: We will never forget the loyal minyanaire who lived less than a mile from shul but who, not wanting to be a “hypocrite,” thought he had to drive to shul on Shabbos. He would sit at Shalosh Seudos and sing “Yom zeh mekubar mikol yamim,” his illiteracy great enough to protect him from realizing the bitter irony that, not only was he reading the song incorrectly, but actually editing it to reflect the way he was relating to Shabbos — as a day about to be buried by a generation, instead of, as the song intends, the most honored (mechubad) of all days. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 707)