One Temple’s Pews Travel 1,600 Miles
As news of the devastation in Houston, Texas, flashed across the television screen, Sheryl Goldman knew she had to find some way to help. The executive director of Los Angeles’ Temple Beth Am thought of the High Holiday pews, for which the temple—on the verge of a remodel—needed to find a new home. Sheryl reached out to Lu Dorfman, the executive director of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, whom she had met via the North American Association of Synagogue Executives (NAASE), a professional organization which connects executives serving Conservative congregations across the nation. Lu said yes.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Lu found his synagogue in ruins. On Saturday morning, with the storm fast approaching, a family celebrated their son’s Bar Mitzvah. From Saturday night to Monday morning, the storm let fall most of the 50 inches of rain it would dump upon Houston. On Monday morning, Lu arrived to find the synagogue without power. The sloped floors of its main sanctuary were submerged in 4 feet of water. When the lights flickered back on, “we were able to see the extent of the damage,” says Lu. “We lost 1,600 to 1,700 seats and prayer books. It’s just an incredible loss, on top of which a quarter of our 1,900 families experienced flooding in their homes.” Within the synagogue’s walls stood 8 inches to 4 feet of water across its three sanctuaries, offices, auditorium, religious school, preschool and elementary school. All of this happened just days before the High Holidays.
Each year since 1995, when Sheryl joined Temple Beth Am’s staff, she has arranged for some 350 crimson-colored pews to be removed from storage one week before Rosh Hashanah. The original sanctuary was dedicated in the late 1950s, and it’s likely the pews were custom-made to match, she says. During the High Holidays, the pews open into the temple’s ballroom space to create the illusion of one large room. There they sit through the candle lightings and the shofar (horn) blasts of the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) until the day after Yom Kippur, when they return to storage.
This year, Sheryl had just hours to fundraise for the 1,600-mile move. “Once the word was out, we raised close to $15,000 in less than an hour,” she says. “I think people found it meaningful to contribute money toward something so concrete.” Among the kehillot (Jewish communities inside and outside the walls of a synagogue) who contributed were USCJ’s (the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) Disaster Relief Fund, the RPO Group of Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation, the Freeman Group—who is leading Temple Beth Am’s remodel—and the temple’s own Helping Hands and Rabbi’s discretionary fund, as well as private donors.
Two days after Yom Kippur, movers from LD Moving & Storage Inc. loaded up an 18-wheeler truck for the long drive to Houston, where the pews arrived sometime in October. In the coming months, Congregation Beth Yeshurun faces an overwhelming recovery effort. But, as Lu told Sheryl, “These are not going to be permanent seats for us. I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, at some point in the future is going to have a need for them, and we’re going to pay them forward.”