The memories of one’s childhood combine to form a picture either sweeter or perhaps more bitter than what is warranted by the real experience. Yet, except for time-worn photographs, a parent’s dusty recollections, or maybe more luckily, a diary that was thought to be lost, memories are all we have to recall of those days we can neither recapture nor relive.
And so I can only trust the somewhat cobwebbed places of my mind to help repaint a picture of the years I attended a little synagogue in New York City. From the time I was six years old until the wise” old age of fourteen, I participated in worship and Hebrew School classes there each week. Early on Sunday mornings my older sister and I walked from our home in the Bronx past the great expanse known as the Washington Bridge (it still stands today). And there, in a Manhattan neighborhood called Washington Heights, was our beloved synagogue. It sat nestled cozily between two old, gray tenement buildings.
How dear that the synagogue was to me! As we entered its doorways, we were greeted each week by the shammas, Harold. And, if we were particularly lucky that week he would sneak us a piece of candy from some endless source he kept hidden in the closet behind his desk.
The synagogue itself was small, but to me it seemed so majestic. The simple stained-glass windows let in diffused, multi-colored rays of light that captivated my attention. The Light of the Eternal Presence likewise fascinated me, and I sometimes wished that I could sneak into the sanctuary late at night to see if, indeed, it was always lit. But oh !—I almost cannot describe it—how awesome it was to behold the Torah as it was removed from its royal velvet nest each week during the Sabbath service. The drama of that moment was always captivating, always uplifting, always filled with awe. The ceremony involved in lifting its silver breastplate, its heavy, ornate silver crowns; the long-awaited moment of unrolling its time-worn scroll—can even the years of this thirty-year old woman erase such a memory? No; I remember those ceremonies and revel in the warm delight they still bring to me.
But I must stop and ask myself a question I did not know to ask in those days. I remember our temple sanctuary; I remember Harold the shammas; I remember the patience and wisdom of our beloved rabbi. But where was God all those years?
I do not or cannot remember being aware of God’s Presence, not as I have come to know it personally today. Perhaps the closest I ever came to feeling it in those days was in viewing the Light of the Eternal Presence. But that lamp was only symbolic, with little bearing upon my daily childhood existence. Where was God all those years?
I think I know. I think He was waiting, smiling, preparing me for a special day when, in my early 20’s, I would enter His true sanctuary, a place of holiness not made by human hands. Yet, I think God was with me even in my childhood days of walking to synagogue. But I now know that He holds each of us in the palm of His hands, shaping, softening and molding our hearts until we are ready to receive Him through His promised One, the Messiah.
Some may wish to take exception and argue that I could have found God in the quiet recesses of my synagogue’s walls. But the religion with which I grew up only manifested itself in beautiful, ancient rituals which spoke of God but did not reveal Him. Yet, Scripture urges us to “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). But where, and how, do we seek Him?
When I was 21 years old, a friend pointed me in the direction of the pages of Scripture. There, Jesus said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39) Within God’s Word is God Himself, waiting to be found by those who call upon Him. The little girl has come Home—the Eternal Home of our People.