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Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Third Row

My slow crawl towards traditional Jewish observance began somewhere around age 16 (a story for another day), and for all intents and purposes continues to this day.  However there were a couple of milestones along the way that stand out in my mind... especially at this time of year.

For instance, several months after enlisting in the Navy... with basic and technical training behind me... I decided the time was right to 'come out' just a little bit about being an observant Jew.  There is an entirely different story I may share with you some day about reporting to my first ship and handing my orders to the captain... while wearing a kippah.  But that too is a story for another day.

Today I'd like to tell you how and why for the past 25+ years... no matter where in the world I've found myself... I have almost always gravitated towards the third row of the synagogue.

It all started in a place with the unlikely name of 'The Aloha Jewish Chapel'

The first time I heard the name of the place was about a week after getting orders for my new home port, Pearl Harbor Hawaii.  The name made me giggle because it sounded like a Las Vegas wedding chapel where Elvis impersonators presided over drive-thru nuptials.

However, to my surprise the first time I wandered over to see the place I found a relative rarity in the U.S. military; a Jewish chapel that did not share space with any other religion (picture a reversible Aron Kokesh (Ark) with a ghostly hand sticking out on either side to indicate the presence of an over-large crucifix nailed to the other side). 

In fact The Aloha Jewish Chapel was one of the only Jewish facilities in the U.S. designed and built from the ground up to serve the needs of the military Jewish community.


Upon walking inside I was impressed to see pictures on the wall of Rav Shlomo Goren (the former Chief Rabbi of the IDF) visiting the Aloha Jewish Chapel shortly after its completion.

The first Friday night service I attended there was an eye opener.  Far from being the only person silly enough to pass up on a night out in Honolulu, I was one of a large group of active duty military personnel, their families, and even some civilians from the local Jewish community who showed up!  A couple of Air Force SGTs (from Hickam AFB), an Army SGT from Scoffield Barracks and a Navy LCDR came over to introduce themselves and invited me to sit with them... in the third row.

It seems that a tradition had sprung up whereby the young, single military personnel (and their friends) gravitated towards the third row, to the extent that the Rabbi and the rest of the congregation often referred to the group by that name (e.g. "OK, but if we're going to plan a bake sale we should check to see if most of the third row will be around to help out.").

Sitting there in the third row  of the AJC I learned about Judaism.  I learned about being part of a Jewish community.  And most of all I began to learn a little about myself.  The 'High Holidays' in the AJC stand out in my mind because this was the first time in my life that I was going to services because I wanted to... not because I was expected to.  Not surprisingly, many of those original members of 'the third row' were also embarked upon their own journeys of discovery and perhaps greater observance.

After the navy I went to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, and I noticed with some amusement that each time I entered a synagogue, my feet took me unbidden to a seat in the third row.  Even after I returned to the US to complete my degree at Yeshiva University, I often found myself sitting in the third row of whatever shul I attended.

After we were married and had moved to Connecticut, I found to my consternation that I'd been assigned a seat in the second row of the synagogue.  I never said anything about it (it seemed a little nutty to demand a third row seat), but for several weeks it proved to be a real distraction.  But then I noticed a couple of seats set off at an angle in front of those I had been thinking of as the first row... which technically gave me a loose claim to still occupying the third row... so everything was OK.

Once we finally moved to Israel I was so overwhelmed with all the adjustment issues of aliyah (the term for moving to Israel), I never stopped to think about where I would be sitting in my new synagogue.  But when I asked the gabbai about open seats (I didn't want to accidentally take a place where someone else had become accustomed to sitting), I was told that a family had just moved to Jerusalem so I could have their seats.  A small smile crept over my face as he pointed out the seats next to the window... in the third row. 

I told him that these seats would be just fine.

I'm not exactly sure why I've shared this with you today... except perhaps as I said earlier, my memories of that original third row come back to me particularly clearly during the holiday season.  Thinking about the tunes I first learned and the rituals I first understood back then mostly bring me back... and I think about how all those intervening years were bringing me to this spot so far away (quite literally on the other side of the earth) from Hawaii... but in a small way to the very same place.

Here is the inside of my shul:


Walking towards my seat...


Sliding into the third row feels a little like coming home:


I can still picture what it felt like sitting in the third row of the Aloha Jewish Chapel.  When my mind would drift back then, I would wonder where this flirtation with observance was taking me.  Would it last?  Would it change me?  For the better?

I still think about these things as I sit in my third row seat next to the window in my Israeli synagogue and look out over a valley that still contains an ancient aqueduct which supplied water to Jerusalem during temple times.  When my mind needs a little vacation, I look across at the ridge-line opposite the one on which our community sits where there remains an ancient road along which Abraham walked with his son Isaac on his way to Jerusalem in order to sacrifice him.


So much of my life here is still new and unfamiliar.  But my seat in the third row of the synagogue is a link in a long chain of events that brought me here.  And though that slow crawl towards greater observance still continues to this day, I sit in my seat... looking out my window and realize I am finally home.

I hope that anyone to whom I have given offense this year will please forgive me.   May you all be sealed in the book of life for a healthy and prosperous year.

Posted by David Bogner on October 1, 2006 | Permalink


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Have an easy fast, from the guy about half way back on the right side of the aisle.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 1, 2006 12:21:38 PM

The third row is much too gutsy for me. I'm a second-to-last-row, seat nearest the wall sorta gal.

Posted by: Fern | Oct 1, 2006 12:44:31 PM

That's a beautiful coming-home post, David. May you and all the family, and all of Israel be sealed for a year of peace, good health, plenty and prosperity.

Posted by: Judy | Oct 1, 2006 1:05:17 PM

beautiful...I also am in the "reminiscing mood" this Yom Tov season...

Posted by: BubbyT | Oct 1, 2006 1:12:47 PM

ooops...beautiful post. It's nice to remember!!

Posted by: BubbyT | Oct 1, 2006 1:13:47 PM

seems the holidays have us all remembering...lovely post...thanks for sharing...gmar hatima tova

Posted by: marallyn | Oct 1, 2006 2:56:41 PM

You have never offended me. If I have ever offended anyone here, or even irritated, please forgive me and have a beautiful new year.

Posted by: Alice | Oct 1, 2006 5:20:35 PM

I'd be right behind you... Fourth Row, but always on the right side... I get vertigo sitting on the left side of the sanctuary.

Posted by: Oceanguy | Oct 1, 2006 5:51:13 PM

What a beautiful Beit Knesset! Wonderful post. Have an easy, meaningful Yom Kippur. Gmar Chatima Tova.

Posted by: Essie | Oct 1, 2006 6:08:51 PM

[ A nice, neat, pithy observation about the Ark With Two Hands... I (a self-proclaimed 'messianic gentile') find the juxtaposition merely thought-provoking, but I'll wager you spoke for many, many others by sketching the image and leaving a lot unsaid there. ]

I found out, after marriage and much to my chagrin, that my wife is a hide-bound "back row" worshipper, whilst I am a "front 2 rows" sort -- in short, we have a mixed marriage. I'll not take any wagers on where we usually end up sitting!

We hope the New Year goes well with you and yours.

Posted by: Wrymouth | Oct 1, 2006 7:37:03 PM

your shul is beautiful, as is the view.

however, the pictures make me very skeptical that I would like the ezrat nashim there.

Posted by: rebecca m | Oct 1, 2006 7:45:55 PM

What a light-filled, friendly-looking shul! Gmar chatima tova, and have a wonderful year!

Posted by: Irina | Oct 1, 2006 7:59:43 PM

Gmar chatima tova from the back of shul.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 1, 2006 8:04:01 PM

Gmar Chatima Tova, David.

Posted by: psychotoddler | Oct 1, 2006 11:19:51 PM

Beautiful posting, David. G'mar Chatimah Tovah to you and your family and may this be a year of health, happiness, and peace.
Helene in California

Posted by: Helene | Oct 1, 2006 11:56:47 PM

I too ask everyone for forgiveness for my unkind words.

(Third-to-last-row next to window.)

Posted by: Dina | Oct 2, 2006 8:02:19 AM

Always wanted to see the inside of a Shul. They wouldn’t let me in the one here and at that time I couldn’t understand why, but now I do.

Posted by: pk | Oct 2, 2006 8:04:16 AM

PK, I just wanted to share with you that righteous gentiles can attend even Orthodox shul if they so desire, under the right circumstances. I go to two different synagogues for services and for lunch and learns- and a third for classes every week. You definitely need to make sure the rabbis know you aren't some sneaky evangelical and to get their OK, but if you want it bad enough (and have a thick skin) it can be a great addition to your life.

Posted by: Alice | Oct 2, 2006 7:41:51 PM

Thanks for translating some of the words for us (righteous) gentiles. I find it interesting.

Alice, how does one recognize a 'sneaky evangelical'? :)

Posted by: Chris | Oct 3, 2006 1:51:51 AM

They melt when you throw water on them. : )

I was shocked to find out that some Christians actually have the brass ones to attend synagogue simply to try to recruit Jews. I mean of course everyone has encountered the eager dudes who go door to door, but to actually go to a synagogue for the purpose of recruitment, yeesh.

Posted by: Alice | Oct 3, 2006 5:22:03 AM

Any messianic gentiles, righteous or not, would do well, in my opine, to shut their mouths when in shul... I believe it would be in poor taste (at the very least) not to sit, be well-behaved, and try to absorb every nugget of knowledge available re: the Jewish faith.

The more a gentile can learn of the very old and well-sunk roots of Judaism, the better they will understand their Christianity.

Why is this so hard to understand? But then again, I cherish and study the Old Things: baseball, jazz, mathematics... ;o)

Posted by: wrymouth | Oct 3, 2006 6:49:44 AM

Hi Alice,

I have run into more than a few that way. It is a good way to incite a very nasty response.

Posted by: jack | Oct 3, 2006 7:33:31 AM

Thanks Alice for the advice, I’m not a fan of evangelists either… and they know that :-), that leaves me on the ‘righteous gentile’ list but since the term is not fully accepted by all of the re: Jewish Faith, it’s always better to take a back seat, I always say, “Let them have their Land and Religion, it should be kept that way.”

Posted by: pk | Oct 3, 2006 8:29:48 AM

Very nice post David, from someone who enjoys sitting in the first row in the balcony (when I want to see what is happening by the men I just have to peek down - and the view out of the windows to the hills of the Shomron is spectacular. I can't understand women who don't like balconies...)

Posted by: westbankmama | Oct 3, 2006 9:33:20 AM

Alice, thank you for your answer. I see now what you mean and agree. As I don't know any recruiting protestants (here in Europe) I was a bit puzzled by your choice of words. Fortunately I passed the water test long ago. :)

Wrymouth, I agree, exchange of knowledge is always a good thing. ;)

Posted by: Chris | Oct 3, 2006 12:33:24 PM

pk, I may have incorrectly recalled that you were a Ben Noach, which prompted my comment. Sorry if I was mistaken or offended anyone.

I dislike the term 'righteous gentile' because I would never describe myself as righteous. Bat/Ben Noach is what I prefer, I guess, which is a non-Jew who believes in Judaism to the exclusion of all other religions, follows the seven laws of Noah, and-IMHO-is still waiting for the Messiah. Others may feel free to disagree with that definition.

OK, enough miscommunicating and have a great New Year.

Posted by: Alice | Oct 3, 2006 3:01:26 PM

A fine way to stay linked, don't you think? Hope your New Year is a wonderful one!

Posted by: benning | Oct 6, 2006 4:03:45 PM

Fell a whole month behind...at least I know I will be in for quality reading as I catch up....I want to hear the other stories you allude to in this post!

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 5, 2006 5:23:47 AM

More or less nothing seems important. So it goes. Oh well. It's not important. That's how it is.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 1, 2007 10:04:39 PM

More or less not much exciting happening today. I just don't have anything to say. More or less nothing seems worth bothering with.

Posted by: street | Oct 17, 2007 5:08:13 AM

Shalom and Aloha again from Hawaii. You may remember that some time ago I'd e-mailed you requesting permission to add a link from my webpage to yours, which you graciously granted. Every now an then, I check the links to make sure they're still working and I'm happy to report the link from my webpage to yours is working fine. But, I just discovered that your above link to the Aloha Jewish Chapel no longer works. The U.S. Navy probably changed it; however, if you'd like make a link from your website to my Aloha Jewish Chapel Webpage, you are welcome to do so, since, unlike government bureaucrats, I don't change my URLs! ~ [ http://keith.martin.home.att.net/alohachap.html ] Kol Tuv, KM

Posted by: Keith Martin | Jul 24, 2008 3:18:33 PM

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