I was born and raised in Utica, NY. Population: 61,808. Jewish Population: 300. Orthodox Jewish Population: Me…when I’m visiting.
When I returned from yeshiva to visit in September 2013, it was Yom Kippur and I wanted to go out of my way to show my parents that just because I had started keeping Shabbos and Kosher it didn’t mean that I could not spend the holidays with them. Sure, going to shul in Monsey or Manhattan with a fully packed congregation of Orthodox Jews singing at the top of their lungs was very appealing, but I was going to put my family first. I would join them before and after services. They would pray with the Reform congregation while I would bravely venture to a place I had never gone before: the last remaining Orthodox shul in Utica.
So there I was, instead of the Upper West Side it was downtown Utica. Calling a section of Utica downtown is kind of like referring to your kitchen in your beat up, 200 square/ft, basement studio apartment as your “grand ballroom.”
Trying to have a Torah observant Yom Kippur in my home town was just a mess. The entire week prior, my poor mom had desperately tried to find a place for me to stay that was walkable to the only Orthodox synagogue so that I wouldn’t have to trek the 18 miles from home. Somehow my mom was successful, and I slept only a half mile from the shul at someone’s home who was also in town to honor his parents and reconnect to his childhood community.
I walked into synagogue that Yom Kippur morning and took a head count: 18. Eleven men and seven women.
It turns out that the only reason we had a full minyan was because of this sentiment. When I walked into synagogue that Yom Kippur morning, I took a head count: 18. Eleven men and seven women. Several were there on their annual trip back to their parent’s town for the sake of making them proud. The rest of the crowd was composed of full time Utican residents, ages 75 years and above, who had witnessed the five Orthodox shuls from the 30’s and 40’s gradually dwindle to just one.
My family had never been affected by the decline of Utica’s Orthodox representation because as far as we knew, all of our past generations had been affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements. I made eye contact with the three “under 80’s” individuals and we gave each other an action-packed head nod saying, “Greetings my fellow brother-in-arms who has ventured into this strange yet familiar land. I will speak of your sacrifice. You will not be forgotten.” I think I was interpreting that head nod correctly…
The service took place in a surprisingly exquisite, rustic, and beautifully built shul that once held 400 dedicated members. Today we were 18 in total. What stood out to me the most was the enormous space, the echoes of everyone’s Shema and Kaddish almost filling the voids of those who were not there. If one were to close his eyes, it would sound like those 400 seats were full again.
The service, admittedly, was somewhat of a drag. The singing was unenthusiastic, the inspirational Torah speech never happened, and the place was simply empty. At some point in the afternoon my mind and my feet began to wander. I made my way, unbeknownst to me, towards the wall where the In Memoriam plaques nearly covered the 10 foot space. I was glancing over the wall in a bit of a disheartened day dream as the praying and singing was devolving into groaning and snoring.
And then I saw it. “William Slakter.”
I woke up and scanned it again. “William Slakter 1911-1980.” My great grandfather was part of the Torah observant world?! Throughout my childhood all my brother and I knew was that we only had secular, modern-day Judaism in our genes. This, for a guy who just spent two years in Israel trying to reconnect to his Jewish heritage in order to live a Torah lifestyle, was a real discovery! I once heard that if a Jew goes back far enough, he will find Orthodox Jews in his ancestry, but I never knew mine was only three generations away. My Nana’s dad. My Nana had probably sat on his lap here as a child. My mind wandered again...
If a Jew goes back far enough, he’ll find Orthodox Jews in his ancestry, but I never knew mine was only three generations away.
An older woman came over to me and took a tight, finger numbing, hold of my hands in the way that these ladies do and said “Are you Noah?!”
I said yes. She pulled me out of the minyan and took me aside in a flurry of ecstatic, self-interrupting statements. “Your grandfather!- oh I know your!- Oh wow! – I can’t believe! I heard about you from!- Your parents are just wonderful!” This went on for quite some time as a welcome respite from the synagogue. She was in her 80’s but had the spirit and voice of a 16 year old spunky cheerleader. Today she was cheering me on and telling me, nearly on cue, about my great grandfather who I had just discovered on the In Memoriam plaque. She told me story after story about how her father and my great grandfather were best of friends and used to play pranks on each other, visited each other’s businesses, and spent the holidays together. She went on and on with hilarious and nostalgic stories of my family.
At the end of our conversation, when I told her it was about time that I return to the synagogue, she explained what my grandfather “Willy” was most known for in the Jewish community. Every time he passed a young Jewish boy in the street he would challenge the young man, “Are you wearing your tzitzit (the fringes on a four-cornered garment) today?” And if that boy showed him the strings hanging under his shirt Willie would give him a quarter.
I started tearing up as I realized that wearing tzitzit every day was the very first mitzvah that I connected with and took on.
The elderly lady then looked me straight in the eye and said with as much weight as she could convey, "Your great grandfather would be so very proud to see you davening in this shul today."
My name is Noah William Dinerstein and I don’t believe in coincidence.
In a moment this nearly forgotten shul became the location of my most memorable Yom Kippur to date. I would return every year if I could. God's wink in the last remaining Orthodox shul in Utica showed me that my great grandfather was one of those faithful Jews who kept our rich tradition alive so that one day in the future I could taste the sweetness of Torah Judaism.