For Jews who attended the summer home of the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva up in the Catskills, the name Patrick Henry (everyone called him Pat and few, if any knew his last name) took on a completely different meaning. Albeit a “Founding Father” in his own right, Patrick Henry was neither an orator nor a politician. Patrick Henry was the closest living thing to the cartoon character Popeye. He had sailor tattoos on his arms and smoked a corncob pipe. His predilection for spinach however remained unknown, although a spinach diet would have surprised no one, given that he was missing most of his teeth, so much so that he bumped his gums every time he ate.
Patrick Henry was the janitor of the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. He was best known for “swabbing the deck” (washing the floors in the bathrooms and corridors) and ladling out green peas and mashed potatoes to the students standing in the lunch line. But, unknown to so many, Patrick Henry was much more than that. When the hundred year old wooden frame of the main building of Yeshiva which housed the synagogue caught fire and was reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes, Patrick Henry emptied his life savings and handed the funds to the Yeshiva for the construction of a new building.
Mr. Roetta (in Mr. Roetta’s case, few, if any knew his first name) was of Hispanic origin. He lived in a synagogue in Queen’s New York. And even though a goodly percentage of that shul was Holocaust survivors, Mr. Roetta owned a German shepherd that he kept chained up on the roof, where it barked ferociously. That was well over forty years ago and the dog has long died. But Mr. Roetta, now well into his nineties is still mopping the floors and setting up the Kiddush. Come snow, he is immediately outside with the snow blower regardless of the time of day. As far as Mr. Roetta is concerned, it’s his synagogue.
Not far from Lubavitch World Headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, one finds Congregation Chovevei Torah. To longtime residents, the synagogue located on 885 Eastern Parkway will always be known as Murphy’s Shul. Story has it, that at one time Murphy’s Bar stood at the location. Very much aware that the Jewish residents were desperately looking for a location to set up a synagogue in the neighborhood, the owner did something few would do. Rather than sell the business, Mr. Murphy deeded the property over to a group of Jews on the proviso that a synagogue be established where his bar once stood. In doing so, Mr. Murphy helped dispel the widely held notion that as far as the New York Irish were concerned we were all “sheenies” (a derogatory term for Jews). In gratitude, those from the neighborhood continued to refer to the synagogue as Murphy’s Shule.
More than a few rabbis are uncomfortable at the notion of including Christians in their prayers, unless of course those Christians are heads of state. One would do well to ask such rabbis to explain the phrase “and all who are involved faithfully in the needs of the community” which we offer up each Shabbat morning immediately following the chanting of the haftorah. Shouldn’t it apply to Mr. Murphy, Mr. Roetta, Mr. Henry and countless other non-Jewish “angels” throughout this country who give of themselves unconditionally, so that Jews are able to attend clean, presentable synagogues that are well lit and properly heated and air conditioned? May Hashem grant them the very best!