A Groundbreaking New Initiative to Allow Anyone to Dedicate a Synagogue Building
On a small side street, mere hundreds of feet away from one of the busiest intersections in Lakewood, lies a quiet little shul. As I turn into the parking lot, I am struck by the simplicity of the building. There are no large plaques with donors’ names, no fancy architecture, no stained-glass windows. One sees only the name of the shul written with simple metal lettering – “Kehilat Etz Hayim, according to the customs of Aram Soba” – as well as two small dedications by the front doors, and a large electronic billboard.
An electronic billboard? On a shul?! What is going on?
That is precisely what I came to find out.
The Office That is a Kollel
Nearly two decades ago, this area of Lakewood was not the bustling center of activity that it is today. There was just one small outpost, a new development by the name of Forest Park, which had just been built. Among the newcomers was Rabbi Eliyahu Tobal, a young man from Brooklyn, who had moved to Lakewood to study in kollel. Almost immediately, he recognized the need for a Syrian minyan. Always a man of action, before long he had a full-service shul up and running.
From its humble beginnings in Steven and Trina Levy’s basement, Etz Hayim has traveled a long way. Now, over 20 years later, it is the center of a large and thriving community, in one of the most densely-populated Syrian sections of Lakewood.
Rabbi Tobal, who assumes full responsibility for the shul and the community, and who came up with the idea of the billboard, is the man I am here to see.
I enter the shul and ascend to the second floor, where Rabbi Tobal ushers me into a small office. As I enter, I do a double-take. The room looks nothing like an office. Besides for a small desk with a computer in the corner, the room seems more like a bet midrash. There are hundreds of books lining the walls, a whiteboard with Hebrew words all over it, and a table surrounded by chairs.
Seeing my look of astonishment, Rabbi Tobal explains. “We have a kollel here every morning, before or after vatikin, depending on the season. We have a class with Rabbi Rahamim Shayo from Israel twice a week, via skype.”
“Ah-ha!” I thought to myself. “So that’s what the computer is for!”
Torah From 4am Till After Midnight
“And that is not the only thing we do,” the rabbi proudly continues. “Besides the minyan at netz (sunrise), we have two other minyanim each morning. From shortly after 4am, there are people sitting in the bet midrash and learning. We have a kollel for an hour before the 7am minyan, and a full-day kollel run by Rabbi Michael Levy, in which we are training approximately 20 young men to be rabbis. We have two minyanim for mincha, and two or three for arvit. At night, the shul is bustling, with people learning past midnight. On an average day, hundreds of people enter this shul.
“In addition, we are privileged to have Rabbi Ezra Zafrani, shelit”a, serve as the rabbi, mashpi’a, and da’at Torah of Etz Hayim. From the shul’s inception, the rabbi has counselled, advised, and guided us in all areas, and till today, he is the backbone of the entire congregation. Rabbi Zafrani carries with him many years of experience in hinuch, along with the perfect blend of wisdom, patience, discipline, and humility, and we are very fortunate to have the rabbi give inspiring and thought-provoking classes on Michtav Me’Eliyahu and Hovot Halevavot. Furthermore, each morning and evening, we have a Gemara class, where we learn according to the ‘Kinyan Masechta’ system. We are well on our way to completing our fifth masechet. And that is even before we talk about everything that happens here on Shabbat and holidays.
“Recently, we built a permanent tent in the back to accommodate events such as beritot and the like.”
I am impressed. Who knew that there was so much going on here, far from the center of the community?
But I cannot forget why I had come.
“But what’s with the billboard?” I ask.
“It’s an opportunity,” Rabbi Tobal explains.
Everyone Can Dedicate a Building
“One of the greatest things about our shul is the fact that it’s not just a place to pray. We are all one big family. So two years ago, I had an idea – instead of selling the dedication for the building to one individual, we would get everybody involved. What an honor and privilege it must be to sponsor all the Torah and prayers that take place in this building! We did not want that privilege to be taken by just one person, in one moment of generosity. Instead, we felt that everybody should have the chance to dedicate our building. Each day, all the prayers, Torah study, and mitzvot which are done here can be yours. Anybody can be that day’s sponsor.
“That is what the billboard is for. We have set the background to match the stone façade of the building, and each day, the building is dedicated anew. For one day, you can have the building named in your honor. Until now, dedicating buildings has been a privilege reserved for a few individuals. Today, we are giving everybody the chance.”
“Has the idea been a success?” I ask with curiosity and intrigue.
“It’s been incredible,” the rabbi replies. “Many have already jumped at this unique opportunity. A large portion of the dedications are in honor of a yahrtzeit. This is a very important day for the soul. Imagine how happy it must be to receive so many additional merits. It’s like sending your loved one a birthday present! People have also dedicated in honor of a friend, family member, or mentor, as a zechut (merit) for a shidduch or hatzlahah (success) , or just to thank Hashem for a kindness which He has done for them.
“The feedback we have received has been amazing. Somebody who had been undergoing tests dedicated our building as a zechut for a refuah shelemah (complete recovery), and shortly afterward, the doctors told him that his problems had disappeared. Another man had an important meeting, which he was apprehensive about, but in the end, everything went unnaturally smoothly. We even had a family that pooled together to dedicate the day in honor of their mother’s birthday! They couldn’t believe how much she appreciated this unique gift.”
“What a fascinating concept,” I exclaim. “I am quite impressed.”
“Everyone is Invited”
I then ask whether or not the billboard is reserved only for members of your shul.
“No, anyone can dedicate,” the rabbi replies. “In fact, most days are dedicated by people unaffiliated with the shul who would like to seize this unique opportunity. We have had people visiting from abroad, from places like Mexico and Panama, who were so impressed with the special warmth of our shul that they felt compelled to get involved.
“We are a community shul. Everyone is invited. We do not have a membership. We have people praying here from all walks of life, and from all backgrounds. Some people pray here only on Shabbat, and some only during the week. Some people come here from Brooklyn for the summer, and others only come occasionally, when visiting relatives. It does not matter. Even if somebody has not been here for months, this is still his home. He knows that he will be warmly greeted when he comes in.
“And even if a person cannot join us in body, he can still be with us in spirit by ensuring our continued operation, thus taking part of everything that happens here. Actually, he then becomes the cause of everything which happens here.”
I glance at my watch, and realize with a start that I am running late for my next appointment. I thank Rabbi Tobal for his patience, gather up my things, and leave the office encountering three other people who are waiting in the hallway for the rabbi. As I step into my car, I feel grateful for having had the privilege to meet somebody as special as Rabbi Tobal, and for the opportunity to participate in this wonderful mitzvah.