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Harriet Berkal
photo: Manny Berkal-Sarbit

Rabbi and Sarah Berkal


by Harriet Berkal, January 22, 2014




My beloved mother Sara Berkal used to say to us upon leaving her home: “See you in Church!" She, along with my dad, had literally spent the majority of their lives in shul, officiating and attending all life cycle events. So it was quite an honor when years ago, Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, decided to dedicate the chapel in my dad’s name. He would gather here religiously, to join the “bagel boys” for minyan and you could feel his inner peace in davening in this separate place of worship.




That small and intimate room, balanced by memorial lights, serves two purposes. It contains those who meet for daily services- those who commit to showing up in the early hours be it rain or shine or thirty below (as did my father for 51 years) and it also protects family members during a funeral service to grieve privately, if only for a short while – out of reach from the community, before the burial. This special room, although not called the sanctuary, provides a haven for those in time of need and prayer.




I myself am not that religious. One of four Berkal offspring, I do not go to synagogue, for a variety of reasons. However, this chapel (where I go to observe yorzeit) holds a special connection for me as a place to connect with my dad. I wonder, with all this talk of amalgamation of synagogues, will there be an incorporation of the Rabbi Berkal Chapel, in a new facility?




Etz Chayim also has rooms in honor of their former rabbis and so how is this to be handled if the two forces join and rebuild a new synagogue and sell off their respective properties?




Unlike other children growing up, I hung out at the synagogue just to be with my father. He literally worked non-stop and so if you wanted to see more of him – best to hang out where he was a constant fixture. The whole building actually was like a home away from home for me and to this day, I can’t walk through its doors without being flooded with special memories. Amongst them: hiding in the choir loft- a secret place others knew nothing of; and knowing where special buttons were to hear the service upstairs; knowing that my dad would leave me a treat in his office, between high holiday services. These are the types of recollections I hold dear. I remember the bomb scare announced at a Kiddush when I was about age four when Rabbi Aaron, instructed us to leave the building. Some people were grabbing their tortes with them as we were herded outside. My dad grabbed my hand as we gathered on the front lawn.



I believe that anyone who ever had a function at the synagogue feels much the same. Even though bar /bat mitvah celebrations could often be cookie cutters of each other- if it was yours and you had studied with Rabbi Berkal – there was this very special connection.



As a bride and groom standing under the chupah with him officiating, you remember that beemah , the chupah, those ferns, the arc. It’s implanted in your sensory code. How can it not be?




When Ramah School was torn down, I believe many in the community who had grown up learning there, felt a sense of loss. For me I felt the loss of  the auditorium, where my father and Mrs. Fink would put on concerts.



If Shaarey Zedek is demolished or sold and renovated and is altered from its original form, it will be different this time round.



It will feel like a total bereavement for me and to many others who hold the building and the memories therein something to cherish.



When my father, a Rabbi Emeritus, no longer worked at the shul, the caretakers approached me and handed me my father’s old metal parking stall sign labelled Rabbi Berkal. 



It may turn out in the end that, it will remain my only physical remnant of Shaarey Zedek.



I hope that if the amalgamation proceeds, that the powers that be, remember my father and the vast contribution he made to this community which warranted the naming of the chapel after him.

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