On Saturday, March 17, 2012, a fire started in a home on Poplar Street in Northern Liberties. We were nearby, praying in a space that we use as a synagogue for our Shabbos services.
At about 11:30 a.m., a group of the children who had come to the prayers with their parents ran into the service. They had been playing in another room and were screaming that they smelled fire. The adults immediately stopped the service and ran to see what it was.
After ascertaining that it was not in our building, some of our group continued to search. They finally spotted the source of the smoke. It appeared to be coming from the back of a home across Poplar Street.
One woman immediately ran to the home and began banging on the door, as others called for the Fire Department. When the banging produced no quick answer, she began throwing rocks at the upstairs windows.
Finally a woman poked her head out to see what all the commotion was about. The young family inside, who had been sleeping, came outside to safety. An hour later, as they watched from the street as firemen sprayed water in their home, they expressed their appreciation to me.
I tell this story not to share the heroics of Suzy, who woke the inhabitants of the home, or of the other congregants and passers-by, who summoned the Fire Department. Or of the heroics of the children who would not rest until the adults had done what needed to be done. While these people definitely deserve recognition and thanks, something much greater and broader occurred to me. The concept of community is alive and well.
Social researchers point to the diminishing involvement of people in their religious observances and communities today. These trends are discussed and contemplated in bestsellers by writers of the caliber of Robert Putnam and David Brooks.
Some point out that these trends are bound to continue, leading to a collapse, or near collapse, of religious communities as we know them today. Most point to this trend as inevitable.
The events of this recent Shabbos drove home the strength and power of community. If religion were to disappear, the world would be a much worse place. If communities, as we know them to be, were to disappear, the world would suffer much from it.
We have often wondered why our synagogue came to meet in its current temporary home in a large empty warehouse. Perhaps this was the reason — to save three lives.
My wife, Shevy, and I moved our young family to Northern Liberties in 2005 because the promise that it showed then was clear. It had a strong community, built around the NLNA, perhaps the most insightful and transparent neighborhood association in the city. It had developers who had devoted themselves to the neighborhood. In particular, Bart Blatstein was developing with a vision of a community.
In short, if we lose religion and community as we have always known it, we will all be worse off. People think of religious work as "merely" spiritual. In reality it is more than that. It is part of our lives. A religious community can indeed help people live.
The kindness that was shown to us by the owners of the building to allow us to use the space — this is community. Prayers and celebrations are a part of this community. Indeed, the lives that were saved on one Saturday morning are the ultimate exhibit of what community can do.
Gedaliah Lowenstein and his wife, Shevy, direct the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties. He can be reached at [email protected]