By Rabbi David Algaze

   Have you ever asked why do bad things happen? Have you wondered why Hashem brings trouble and problems into our lives? I would like to share with you an insight I just learned: troubles are windows that allow us to see something we cannot see from inside our houses.

The Hebrew word for trouble, nisayon, is related to the verb nasa, to raise and hence the word for “flag” is in Hebrew nes. Thus, a time of difficulties and challenges provides us with the opportunity to rise above our limitations and gaze into what we could not have gazed before. Pain and suffering are the very fuel through which we grow; they are like stepping-stones that permit us to climb higher and see new things. As children who do not want to grow up, we too resist the growth and the manner in which it comes but Hashem, desiring our improvement, does not refrain from sending our way the pills that taste bitterly but bring us the blessing we need. Our Rabbis therefore teach us that “one is obligated to recite a blessing over trouble as one has to make a blessing over something good”.

I reflected on this thought as I passed by my synagogue in Forest Hills the other day. Havurat Yisrael, founded in 1981, had a very attractive building in the heart of Forest Hills from which it sent the light of Torah throughout the neighborhood and the entire city. Classes, an active Bet Midrash and numerous programs and activities throughout the day, sent a message of dynamism and energy that brought many Jews closer to Judaism. In 20 years, Havurat had become a leading institution in kiruv (outreach) and thousands of families, some of them living in other cities in the US and Israel, had their first taste of Torah at Havurat.

But this day the lights were out. There was no minyan, no shiurim, no children waiting for their parents, no music, no life. Inside, an empty shell, humid, dark and desolate seemed to me as if it were crying for us.

Sometime in the summer of 1998, a dedicated teacher teaching Torah at Havurat went into the synagogue looking for some humashim. As she entered the room, she felt the floor sounded as if it were crunchy under foot. Somewhat alarmed she quickly called on one of her students to investigate. The student, an engineer by profession, immediately diagnosed the situation as a structural damage and the class quickly left the building. The next day, the Queens Commissioner of Buildings investigating the scene almost fell into a gaping hole. The earth had collapsed and a crater several feet in diameter and over 6 feet deep was discovered. Understanding the danger that this situation presented to people, the Commissioner immediately condemned the building and presented us with an immediate order to vacate the premises.

It was Friday and Shabbat services were coming soon. The saddest thing was to post the gabbayim at the entrance to the building as people were coming to shul. Dressed in Shabbat garb and many holding the hand of their young children and babies, people had to be turned away from the building. I will never forget those days.

The cause of the collapse was faulty construction next door. Apparently, contractors working without permits and conducting complex engineering maneuvers without adequate supervision had caused the building columns to move which resulted in the caving in of the floor and danger of collapse of the whole structure. In the following days we carefully packed the few things we needed, turned off the lights and closed the door behind. A once thriving synagogue had now become desolation. In the place where children played and parents learned, there was now just silence.

But Havurat Yisrael did not end. People came and they prayed with us wherever we were. Our classes continue, we hold our daily services and other activities in a rented private home and our Shabbat services are held at the Dov Revel Building, by courtesy of Touro College and its precious leader, Dr. Bernard Lander. And we are planning our return and our rebuilding. But in this period, we have learned a precious lesson: the value of an idea. We realized that Havurat Yisrael was not just a building, a place in physical space. Havurat was primarily an idea, a vision of how to approach people, how to learn together and how to develop a community of people who learn and grow. Through our troubles, we have come to appreciate each other more and the fellowship and friendship have increased.

We will go back to a building. We are developing plans for a Center For Jewish Life that will play a major role in the Jewish life in New York. But when we return, we will be somewhat higher. Our troubles have deposited in all of us something we did not have before: a new perspective on what is the essential and what is peripheral.

As I shed a tear for the building that is no more, I said the blessing over troubles, trusting that Hashem knew best and that when we return we will be like a flag atop a pole proclaiming to the world that Hashem is just and that his ways are always ways of mercy and goodness.

Rabbi David Algaze
          Rabbi David Algaze