IT CAME IN the mail.
Rabbi Batya Zahav gathered the envelopes from the wall-mounted brass mailbox outside her St. Louis Park rambler and quickly retreated inside, her fingers already stiff from the December cold. On her way to the dining room, she leafed through the usual assortment of bills, advertisements, and appeals for donations, but one handwritten envelope caught her eye. No stamp, no return address. Curious, she turned it over, ripped open the seal, and unfolded the single page. As she stared at the words, uncomprehending, she felt her chest tighten, her heart pounding loudly. She dropped the letter instinctively, as if it had burned her, the paper tumbling onto the dining room table.
Her hands shaking, she backed away and grabbed the phone from the kitchen, pressed the speed dial, and listened to a single ring before she ended the call and selected a different number.
“HONESTLY, I’M NOT TRYING to be argumentative,” Ellen Forman said to the rabbi’s secretary, a faint New York accent in her voice. “But my appointment has been postponed once already and now you’re asking me to change it again? I’m starting to get the feeling maybe he doesn’t want to see me.”
“It’s not that at all, I assure you. It’s as I said on your answering machine earlier this morning: something came up and if you’re willing, he’d like to reschedule.”
“I’ve been in class all morning so I haven’t been able to check my messages. If he’s avoiding me, at least he could do me the courtesy of telling me to my face.”
Hearing the voices through his closed door, Rabbi David Cohen set down his pen and tucked the half-written page under a corner of his telephone. He buttoned the collar of his shirt and straightened his tie while getting up, ignoring the stomachache
that had plagued him all day. Opening the door, he saw his secretary, Kristen Ferguson, looking flushed with frustration. She gave him a tiny smile of relief.
“I’m not avoiding you,” David broke in, coming up next to Ellen as she turned around to face him. “Something did come up, but clearly it’s more important that I keep our appointment. I’m sorry this has been so upsetting for you.”
Ellen looked at him as if whatever had come up would somehow be physically apparent. “Not nearly as upsetting as why I’m here in the first place.”
“Come in and tell me about it.”
Ellen made her way into his study, draped her long coat over one of the two ersatz leather chairs facing his desk, and sat. Tall and athletic, she was dressed in a long denim skirt and ankle-high boots. A black turtleneck sweater accented the golden highlights in her shoulder-length hair, focusing attention on
her intense brown eyes, which were looking directly at him.
He sat down in the chair next to her, momentarily tempted to seek refuge behind his desk. His experience with Ellen Forman in the few months that she’d been a member at Beth Israel had rarely left him feeling like he’d held his own with her.
“What’s going on, Ellen?”
“Have you noticed an entire population missing from shul?”
“Well, there’s everyone who doesn’t come.” Perhaps humor would soften the tension in the air.
“In other words, no, you haven’t noticed.”
Apparently, humor was not going to work. “I’m honestly not sure what population you’re talking about, Ellen. I notice when regulars stop coming, and I notice new and returning faces, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed an entire population missing.”
“Singles, Rabbi. Young adult singles. College students, graduate students, working people. No spouse, no kids. Maybe not yet or maybe never.”
“Aren’t most of the college students active at Hillel?”
“I’m not at the University of Minnesota. I’m at William Mitchell. And yes, there’s a very good Jewish Law Students Association there, but it’s not the place or even the time to meet singles. I’d much rather meet other singles when I don’t have to concentrate on school or work. Shabbat afternoon, for instance, is a good time to meet people without pressure. But there are precious few singles in shul to meet.”
“Why do you think that is?”
Ellen shifted diagonally in the chair and crossed her legs, draping one arm over the chair back. “Because synagogues are so family-oriented that they’re practically exclusive. Singles of any age don’t feel welcome. And this synagogue is no different.”
David shook his head thoughtfully. “Everyone is welcome to come to services, classes, other events, regardless of their marital status. I can see where some of the holidays might be more family-oriented, but—”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
David started to speak, then stopped. He let out a small sigh. “I guess I don’t. Please, enlighten me.”
“I did some checking up on you, Rabbi. You came to Minnesota a little over eight years ago, not knowing a soul except for the search committee that hired you. How did you meet people? Socially, I mean.”
“Well, my son was a newborn. We met other people who had babies.”
“What if you hadn’t had kids?”
“My wife met people through the Sisterhood.”
“What if you hadn’t been married?”
David could already see where this was going. “If I’d been single, I’d have come to morning minyan, I’d come on Shabbat and holidays, I’d take classes in the evenings, I’d volunteer at the shul. Inevitably, I’d meet people.”
“Yes, but would you meet other singles? Think about the people who come to the things you just mentioned. Morning minyan, before work, is not a good time to meet other singles. Everyone is rushing off to start their day. Shabbat is one big clique made up of other cliques that all have family in common. After a day full of classes and work, I don’t want to take yet more classes. And I have absolutely nothing in common with Sisterhood women other than being female and Jewish. There’s no one near my age and we don’t share the same interests.”
“What do you want me to do, Ellen? The way I see it, this is partly the responsibility of singles themselves. You have to make yourself available if you want to meet people, and you seem to be saying that singles end their involvement in shul activities because they’re not meeting other singles. Of course you’re not going to meet people if you’re not here.”
“Exactly my point, Rabbi. How do we get singles to come back to shul?”
“I suppose you have some ideas?”
Ellen gave him a hopeful look. “That’s why I came to see
BATYA FELT A THREAD OF RELIEF as the line picked up.
“Shalom, Beth Israel, Rabbi’s office.”
She found her voice. “Kristen, it’s Batya Zahav. Is David around?”
“I’m sorry, he’s in with someone now.”
Batya closed her eyes and pressed the phone against her temple, feeling the smooth plastic and using the sensation to ground herself. “Is there—?” She sighed. “No, I’ll call back a little later.”
“I can have him call you when he’s done,” Kristen offered.
“No, it’s okay.” She thought about curling up under a warm blanket on the sofa and trying to lose herself in a novel. Not only was it cold outside, even by Minnesota standards, but she’d managed to wake up with a splitting headache and chills.
“Is something wrong?” Kristen asked as if reading the tension in her voice. “If this is an emergency . . .”
“No, it’s really okay.” No need to interrupt someone’s time with David just to feel reassured. “I might not be near a phone, so I’ll call back later.” She thanked Kristen and hung up, determined
not to let the fear win.
AFTER ELLEN LEFT, David found himself back at his favorite spot in the doorway between his study and the outer office where Kristen was working. “I’m sorry you had to take the brunt of Ellen’s frustration,” he said.
Kristen added another envelope to a small stack of other outgoing mail and tucked a strand of her copper-red hair behind her ear. “It’s okay,” she said in her slight Texas drawl. “I’m sorry your preparation time was interrupted. When does this have to be done?”
“There’s an interfaith peace service tomorrow night. Rabbi Alan Friedmann was going to speak but caught the flu, so I’m filling in.”
“How’s the sermon coming?”
“It’s not a sermon. Not even a d’var Torah. It’s more of a speech.”
“What’s the difference?”
David unclipped his crocheted kippah, readjusted it on his head, and clipped it back in place. “Sermons usually try to motivate people to act or think differently. Speeches present information or opinions and can be much more impartial.”
“Ah, so you’re going for the diplomatic, non-controversial rabbi act?” Kristen asked, laughter in her green eyes. “I hear that’s a tough one to pull off .”
David couldn’t help but smile. He never expected to have such a close, friendly relationship with his secretary, and he benefited from it in many ways. As soon as he had eliminated the one-up dynamic by insisting she call him by his first name, her personality, humor, and wisdom flourished. Most of all,
he appreciated the way she questioned and challenged him. Whether it was her personality, her perspective, or some combination, it was a quality he treasured and frequently employed.
“I’m going to be standing at the pulpit of a church less than two weeks before Christmas, a giant cross hanging behind me, talking to a mostly Christian audience about the importance of creating peace in our community through tolerance, mutual respect, and religious pluralism. I don’t think it’s the time or place to bring up the Jewish stand against assimilation, or how much I dislike the secular arguments for ‘Chanukah bushes,’ or Christmas trees in public places.”
Kristen grinned. “But if anyone can pull it off, you can. You sure you’re not going to be even a tiny bit controversial?”
David looked up toward the ceiling and stroked his chin, momentarily distracted by a whisker he must have missed when shaving. “I might mention some of the things we have to cope with at this time of year: how religious Jews feel in the midst of frenetic consumerism, Christmas decorations everywhere we look, and the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas.”
Kristen laughed. “Now that’s the David I expected!
He allowed himself another smile. His stomach, however, was doing nothing of the sort. All joking aside, the last thing he wanted to do was alienate the Christian community right before they celebrated the birth of their messiah: a Jew who, David suspected, would have been one of the first to stand against assimilation.
“By the way,” Kristen interrupted his thoughts, “expect a call from Rabbi Zahav. She called while you were in your meeting and said she’d call back when she was near a phone.”
“Okay, thanks.” He headed out the door, thinking of a can of dried fruit and nuts he’d seen earlier in the kitchen. To Kristen’s questioning look he said, “Writing will require sustenance for fortitude.”
Kristen tapped the bracelet watch on her left wrist.
“Remember, tomorrow night is fast approaching.”
THE AFTERNOON SNACK DID LITTLE to settle David’s stomach and he was staring at the same half-written page, unchanged since Ellen’s arrival, when the intercom buzzed. He pushed the button absently.
“Rabbi Zahav is on the line.”
“Thanks.” He picked up the phone. “Shalom, Batya.”
“Hi, David. I don’t mean to dispense with our usual pleasantries but I have to ask you something.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Has anything . . . unusual happened there? Anything out of the ordinary?” Batya sounded rushed and distracted, typical for a Monday at Temple Shalom.
“Nothing that I can think of. Although I was recently informed that the entire singles population has disappeared from the shul. Do you retain any of your post-college singles?”
“Um . . . I’m sorry, David, but I really can’t think about that right now.”
David sat up straight, the receiver feeling sticky in his hand as his palms began to perspire. It wasn’t haste or distraction he heard in Batya’s voice. It was fear.
“What’s wrong, Batya?”
“It’s . . . um . . . it’s probably nothing. Just a couple of hate letters.”
“Sent to the synagogue?”
“The first one was. I found the second one today in my
“Are you at home now?”
“Yes. I couldn’t go in to work today.”
“Have you called Arik?”
“No. Not yet. I want him to know; he’s my husband. But you know how he is, David. What do you think his first reaction would be if he found out some nutcase was sending me nasty letters?”
David formed a mental picture of the big Israeli-born homicide cop, going door to door in relentless pursuit of the letter-sender. “I think everyone with an instinct for self-preservation should stay out of his way.”
“Exactly. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this.”
“It sounds like it’s a big deal already.” David glanced at his watch. Two-forty. “How about if I come over for a few minutes?”
Long silence. “I know you’re busy.”
“Not that busy. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you, David.”
He hung up the phone and stuffed the rough copy of his speech and a handful of books into his briefcase, anticipating he wouldn’t make it back to his study today. Tomorrow’s schedule was back-to-back meetings, so tonight he was going to have to break one of his wife’s long-standing rules and bring work home. He hoped Sara would understand.
Kristen looked up as he left his study and closed the door. “Are you going to be back for your four o’clock?”
“No. I need you to call and cancel it, please.” He handed her a large black appointment planner, partially covered with reminders hastily scrawled on yellow sticky notes. “Here’s my calendar. Go ahead and reschedule with them if you can. I probably won’t be back in today. And one more thing . . .”
“Have we received any unusual or threatening letters lately?”
“Aside from the ‘Dear Rabbi, please join our church’ postcard, no.”
“If anything should arrive, don’t do anything with it and call the police. Tell Betsy and everyone in the main office to do the same thing. Okay?”
“Sure. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know yet. But I’m going to find out.”