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The Often Invisible Non-Jews

The Often Invisible Non-Jews

Acknowledging the gentiles who keep our synagogues running.


A few weeks ago I went back to a shul I hadn’t visited since I was small. Who would still be there after 40 years, I wondered? Quite a few people, as it happened, but one man in particular stood out: someone who was a constant in the shul all those years before, someone I would see all the time as a boy, even though I didn’t really see him at all. At the time, I never even knew his name. He was the custodian, and he lived in the shul.

As a very short, quiet, unassuming Hispanic man, Mr. Roetta – that, I only now found out, is his name – might have gone entirely unnoticed except for his dog, a German shepherd he kept chained on the roof, where he barked furiously. I remember coming to the shul for the evening service and seeing the dog at the edge of the roof, howling at the sky.

It was odd to have a German shepherd at a shul where many of the members were survivors; the rabbi himself, a famous Polish refugee, came to London via Vienna on the eve of the war and survived the blitz before he came to this congregation in Queens. But no one in the shul ever said a thing about the dog – or about Mr. Roetta; it was as if they weren’t even there.

He’s 92. The dog is long gone, but he is still cleaning up around here.

But even after 40 years, I recognized him immediately. He strode upright across the room with a strength that bespoke a man much younger and began setting up the kiddush. “He’s 92,” someone in shul told me. “The dog is long gone, but he is still cleaning up around here, mopping the floors in the bathroom and in the halls. In winter he is in front at first light with the snow blower.” Concealed in his small frame was a certain will, even an enthusiasm for manual labor, somewhat foreign to my Polish-Jewish bones.

A memory came back to me when I saw Mr. Roetta: Yom Kippur 40 years ago, almost to the day – Oct. 6, 1973. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, the sun was past its height, and the rabbi, in his holy garments, abruptly stopped the services. He klopped on the prayer stand: “There are reports of heavy fighting in the Sinai and the Golan; there are serious casualties.” How had he known? No one could have been listening to the radio or television on the holiest day of the year. It was a large shul and there was a silence I will never forget for all my life. One had to presume Mr. Roetta had informed the rabbi – and indirectly, the whole congregation–that “we” had been attacked. He had always been devoted to the rabbi and the shul. He still is.

It got me to thinking about the various people in the shuls that I have been, custodians and others, many of them not of the tribe, but somehow by virtue of their devotion to their jobs and to their synagogues, partially of the faith.

Popeye and the Bais Medrash

When I was a young man, I would spend summers at Camp Morris, the storied, summertime Catskills home of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. One year in late spring when I was in 10th grade, lightning struck the main building of the camp that housed the bais medrash and the dining room. The 100-year-old wooden structure burned to the ground in minutes.

A swift campaign was launched to rebuild in time for summer. Funds were raised, and miraculously, a new building was completed in less than two months. At the entrance to the new bais medrash was a plaque with the names of the major donors. Alongside the usual Jewish names you might expect was the name Patrick Henry. Campers stared in disbelief: Who was Patrick Henry?

We thought it must have been some kind of joke, but Patrick Henry was one of the janitors in the yeshiva. He was the closest living thing to the cartoon character of Popeye anyone will ever see in this lifetime. He smoked a corncob pipe, had maritime tattoos (anchors!) on his hand, and looked like he had been a deckhand on a whaling ship off Nantucket in the year 1840. He bumped his gums when he ate, because he’d lost most of his teeth. He must have been around 70 when he first came to the yeshiva. Yet there he was, bent but not weak, washing the bathroom floors and the hallways and ladling out the green peas and mashed potatoes on the chow line at lunchtime.

“Pat,” one of the rabbis told us (no one knew his last name), “emptied his life savings and gave it to us.”

We were shocked. Here, a man who we thought of as nothing more than a drunken sailor, gave all his money to build a bais medrash.

We were shocked. Here, a man who we thought of as nothing more than a drunken sailor, gave all his money to build a bais medrash – a place to study Talmud day and night, a place we assumed he could not begin to identify with. One of my cynical friends quipped: “A goy – a shikker – what do you expect? What else he is going to do with his money?” My rebbe gave him a sharp, shaming look and scolded: “You think he had nothing better to do than to give it to us? It was an act of tzidkus – righteousness. Here, a man of 75 cleans up the kitchen and the hallways without a krechtz to anyone and on top of it all, he gives his money. Only a fool could make light of him.”

Every synagogue, yeshiva, and Jewish institution has people like Mr. Roetta and Pat the janitor: non-Jews who toil in the Jewish world without ever becoming fully part of it. They are often invisible – we see them, but we don’t see them, as though we can never imagine them beyond their silent supporting roles. The fact is that they have always been part of our culture, the hewers of wood and the carriers of water going back to the days of the Temple. Even if they are not fully part of the Jewish world, neither are they fully separate. As we start a New Year and begin the Torah anew, we might take a new look at those who help us and the debt we owe them, the non-Jews without whom the Jewish world could not function.

A version of this article originally appeared in Tablet magazine.

September 30, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 42

(38) franklin ojong, October 9, 2013 5:49 PM

judaism is life

i love this story so much. one thing i must say is that Roetta and Pat are jews by works and faith and this is what a real jew look like.

(37) Chuck, October 6, 2013 3:49 PM

And yet...

Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford cleaners and nannies refer to them as "the shiksa." Let us remember that they are people who do what they do for money, but also because we are required to treat them with respect, not just as employees, but as people too.

(36) Anonymous, October 6, 2013 1:24 AM

You always have stories I Love to read! The subjects are real. If ppl learned from these articles we could really become menschs. I usually notice those are cleaning & helping. Both in shul & other places I need to be during the week. My friends & I greet everyone with a friendly hello, how are you. Thank G-d I don't have friends who are "too good" to speak to some ppl.
So many ppl at the shul are so devoted to helping make the shul a place where we can pray, learn & socialize. Thanks for a wonderful article! Again!

(35) Anonymous, October 5, 2013 11:58 PM

I was very touched by your article, perhaps more so than the average looking Jew. I am Jewish because my grandmother was Jewish, however, I am also African American. I attend a shul, and most of the help who week to week are African
Americans. We can all over look the people who may in the eyes of the congregants are insignificant. But this article reminds us Jew or non-Jewish we are all made in the image of
A simple thank you to those who have been faithful to us to keep our shuls clean and in order can go a long ways. We
all like to appreciated.
I make it a point to thank those who serve us. We hae to be careful not to take them for granted. We do not want tobe judged by the gentile world as being haughty and arrogant. We are to bring the light of G-d in a world that is hurting and broken. Many of these people, such as Mr. Rosetta, could be part of that world.

(34) Anonymous, October 4, 2013 4:07 AM

I worry about this a lot, thanks for a timely article

I often worry about what the rest of the world thinks about Jews and Israelis (not going to mention the various negative stereotypes here). I'm so happy you took the time to share this extremely important thought. Trying to build bridges of understanding and respect with courtesy, rapport and warmth are a great way to foster peace and goodwill. As naive as it sounds, I'm a little aghast at how little some Jewish communities interact with the non-Jewish world around them. They would be humbled to know how many righteous friends surround them. Shabbat Shalom :-)

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