By Aaron Short
A fresh snowfall had coated historic Court Street, which was warmly illuminated by electric street lamps on the fourth night of Hanukkah.
Congregants shuffled through the snow to the Kane Street Synagogue, a cozy oasis on the frightfully cold winter evening. Founded in 1855, the Cobble Hill shul is home to the oldest Jewish congregation in Brooklyn, with ties to the country’s Conservative Judaism movement.
On a Friday night in the middle of the recent holiday season, Kane Street was celebrating family weekend. A security guard seated at a desk greeted visitors who sauntered past a coat rack weighted down with parkas and wool top coats toward a cacophony of voices coming from an upstairs sanctum.
The shul’s brightly lit sanctuary, resembling a New England congregationalist church, was replete with wooden pews, vaulted ceilings, and a wrap-around second floor — which was closed. It is a large space and used typically for major Jewish holidays, Saturday morning services and special events.
Half of the three dozen worshippers in the chapel room were fifth graders from the shul’s Hebrew School, fidgeting in their chairs and chatting with one another as their parents sat with them.
Most had name tags on. A father wrapped his arm around his son who was giggling uncontrollably.
Rabbi Samuel Weintraub, a mainstay who has led the synagogue since 1996, was already standing in front of a large bimah that took up much of the room.
Weintraub started the service on time at 6:30 briefly explaining the importance of certain hymns, and asked congregants to join in when he began singing. The children knew all the prayers and their voices carried above the din of muffled adults.
When he finished the Kabbalat Shabbat service about a half hour later, one of the Hebrew School teachers summoned the students down to the sanctuary where they would work on a play. The students got out of their seats with their parents following dutifully behind. Only four congregants remained.
The rabbi seemed crestfallen.
“There goes our minyan,” he said, but plowed ahead with a preview of the weekend’s torah portion involving the Pharaoh of Egypt’s nightmares about food shortages.
Weintraub paraphrased the passage from Genesis, noting how the Pharaoh had two dreams — that seven gaunt cows devoured seven fat cows and that seven thin heads of grain swallowed seven healthy heads of grain, before summoning Joseph for an explanation of his vision.
The rabbi asked for our interpretation of the reading, but only one person responded with a half-answer.
We moved ahead through the Maariv, with the children and their parents returning to us at the tail end of the Amidah.
Weintraub re-summarized the weekend’s torah portion and asked the children for their interpretations. A handful raised their hands, delving into the symbolism of the cows and wheat, the importance of the second dream which signified that famine should be taken seriously.
Satisfied with the answers from the precocious cohort, Weintraub wrapped up the hour-long service with Yigdal and invited everyone downstairs for kiddish.
The congregants hustled down the stairs and swarmed a table with plastic cups of wine and grape juice. Parents passed the cups to the outer ring of the crowd until everyone had one.
Then they broke a large loaf of challah into fist-size bits and passed the crumbs around as the winter wind howled in the distance.