Thursday, October 11, 2012

Open House

This coming weekend in Chicago is an architectural event entitled Open House where the public is invited to travel to view architectural treasures scatter throughout different neighborhoods. The building I live in is part of Uptown and one of the options to visit.
Some background here. We got the former Chelsea Hotel out of receivership with the promise we’d continue to house senior citizens. So we got a ten-story building that needed a lot of help and a new program, Friendly Towers. For the past almost 20 years we have worked endlessly to refurbish and renovate the building. Our latest effort was the lobby/foyer.

When one walks in they are greeted with over thirty panes of original stain glass back lit from above. The ceiling decorations have all been replastered (if needed) and repainted. I can truthfully say lovingly restored. If in the area, please come Oct. 13 & 14th—and, as always, the coffee shop is OPEN.

Last night I walked down the street about 5 blocks north to a synagogue that is also on the Open House list and which had put out a call for volunteers to help spiff it up. I don’t know what I was expecting. Okay, I thought I was being smart. I arrived with my cleaning bucket, lavender-scented Lysol, and 4 cleaning rags. OMG, really, “baruch hashem.”

I should have brought a shovel.

There was an inch of pigeon poop on the middle row of seats stretching all the way up to the bimah where the rabbi leads the congregation in prayer. I worked with 2 energetic and delusional guys who thought we could actually get the place clean. The floor was sticky with pigeon feces and feathers stuck to my tennis shoes as I walked between the pews with a broom “sweeping” off the seats. My first thoughts were: I should have brought gloves. A second thought arose as I continued stirring up guano dust and feathers: I should have brought a mask. The aforementioned bucket and rags seemed provincial in the face of complete decay and neglect.

After a sneezing fit, I ran downstairs to look for tissue. I ran straight for the men’s bathroom. Bad news. Not only was there no tissue in the stalls, but each of the facilities was clogged with either human waste or decades old rusty water. The bathroom made paint chips look appealing. I ran right back out, snot dripping off the end of my nose.

Where I ran into a man seated in a wheelchair. The rabbi. Is there any tissue? I asked and he said, yeah, by the women’s bathroom. Great, I’m thinking, more horror. To the right of my office. An office? Who would have an office in this run-down shambles of a synagogue. But yes, he had an office and I found the women’s restroom to the right—and it had some artificial flowers and toilet paper.

After cleaning up, I emerged to have a chat with the rabbi, who I think liked my moxie. You use your hands, he said, in way of encouragement, not like those people who stand around and chitchat. I looked down at my hands, blackened from the broom handle—I guess—the poop was white with some tar black puddles!!

Thanks! I said.

He gave me a brief overview of the synagogue’s history.

The space above me had such a long way to go before it could be ready for an open house. Yet I lingered with Rabbi Lefkowtiz. Here he was an old man, having to be carried up the steps to the synagogue, to no congregation, to study the Torah in his office with only the pigeons, their incessant cooing and pooping, to keep him company. What makes a person persevere??

I reluctantly ascended the stairs back up to the cathedral-like sanctuary with the bimah at the one end along with the Ark containing the Torah at the front. The Holy Ark was covered with Venetian glass mosaic tiles displaying Jewish motifs such as the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, stylized representations of the Ten Commandments, crowns representing the crown of the Torah, biblical passages in Hebrew and more. On a plaque of benefactors were rows of names: Jews from Russia, Hungary, Uptown—all gone. Dead or moved up north to Skokie or Devon Avenue.

It was beautiful. It was all here. The sacred and awful beauty. The work and faith of many hands, of believing people. People who had seen the worst—much worse than pigeon poop. They had tackled adversity and come through. This old building, Agudas Achim, she’ll once again shine.

By the end of the evening—unbelievably and with the help of a few pedestrians passing by who saw the door ajar, who joined in cleaning—the sanctuary no longer smelled like old feathers but Murphy’s oil and the pews were cleared of all offensive debris.

Ready for Open House.
360-view of Agudas Achim, click to enlarge

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