Many thanks to Gedaliah Lowenstein, rabbi at the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties, for sharing the lovely essay, below, about how his congregation helped save the lives of three neighbors whose house caught fire on St. Patrick's Day.
(When you're done reading the piece, click here to read a wonderful profile of Lowenstein that appears on MetroplisMag.com - it's about how Lowenstein decided that the perfect place to open the Jewish Center is inside an old beer-bottling plant.)
Here's the essay:
On Saturday, March 17, 2012 a fire started in a home on Poplar Street in Northern Liberties. We were nearby, praying in a space that we use as a synagogue for our Sabbath (Shabbos) services.
At about 11:30am, a group of the children who had come to the prayers with their parents ran into the service. They had been playing in another room and were screaming that they smelled fire. The adults immediately stopped the service and ran to see what it was. After ascertaining that it was not in our building some of our group continued to search.
They finally spotted the source of the smoke. It appeared to be coming from the back of a home across Poplar Street. One woman immediately ran to the home and began banging on the door, as others called for the Fire Department. When the banging produced no quick answer, she began throwing rocks at the upstairs windows. Finally a woman poked her head out to see what all the commotion was about. The young family inside, who had been sleeping, came outside, to safety. An hour later, as they watched from the street as firemen sprayed water in their home, they expressed their appreciation to me.
I tell this story not to share the heroics of Suzy, who woke the inhabitants of the home, or of the other congregants and passers-by, who summoned the Fire Department. Or of the heroics of the children who would not rest until the adults had done what needed to be done. While these people definitely deserve recognition and thanks, something much greater and broader occurred to me:
The concept of community is alive and well.
Social researchers point to the diminishing involvement of people in their religious observances and communities today. These trends are discussed and contemplated in best-sellers by writers of the caliber of Robert Putnam and David Brooks. Some point out that these trends are bound to continue, leading to a collapse, or near collapse, of religious communities as we know them today. Most point to this trend as inevitable.
The events of this past Shabbos drove home the strength and power of community. If religion were to disappear, the world would be a much worse place. If communities, as we know them to be, were to disappear the world would suffer much from it. We have often wondered why our synagogue came to meet in its current temporary home in a large empty warehouse. Perhaps this was the reason- to save three lives.
My wife, Shevy, and I moved our young family to Northern Liberties in 2005 because the promise that it showed then was clear. It had a strong community, built around the NLNA [Northern Liberties Neighbors Association], perhaps the most insightful and transparent neighborhood association in the city. It had developers who had devoted themselves to the neighborhood. In particular, Bart Blatstein was developing with a vision of a community. The NLNA has continued to play a strong and very positive role in the neighborhood. Blatstein’s company, Tower Development, is in the middle of perhaps the most significant building process in the city in recent history.
In short, if we lose religion and community as we have always known it, we will all be worse off. People think of religious work as “merely” spiritual. In reality i t is more than that. It is part of our lives. A religious community can indeed help people live.