You’ve been walking to synagogue every Shabbat for years. For decades.
Now your shul is closing. Well, “merging.” But all the services are taking place in the other partner in the merger, the synagogue that’s just a bit stronger than yours, that has been able to keep a rabbi on its payroll.
But that synagogue is five miles away.
Five miles is too far for a comfortable Shabbat morning stroll.
What are you to do?
Are you just going to stay home on Shabbat?
Are you going to go against your conscience and start driving on the Sabbath?
You raise these concerns with the rabbi of what would be your new synagogue.
It turns out that the rabbi has been worrying about the same thing.
“It was weighing on my mind,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel of Cliffside Park and – pending resolution of merger negotiations – Beth El of North Bergen, both Conservative congregations. “These people would be left without a shul if we merged, and the merged shul would be in Cliffside Park.”
So Rabbi Engelmayer made you a suggestion.
“What if I could come up with a halachic alternative that would get you to shul?” he said.
And to convince you that his offer is legit, he promises to run his proposal by Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz of Teaneck, who is on the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary and until recently a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
Rabbi Engelmayer’s idea: “A Shabbos elevator, except instead of going vertically, it goes horizontally.”
A Shabbos elevator, common in Israeli hotels, is an elevator programmed to run continuously up and down the building, stopping at every floor. No one has to press a button to open the doors.
Since Rabbi Engelmayer can’t build a subway line connecting Hudson and Bergen counties, his horizontal Shabbos elevator is a Shabbos bus. The Shab-bus, as he calls it, is not, as of now, a bus; it’s a six-seat cab with a non-Jewish driver, hired from a local cab company. Like the Shabbos elevator, which stops on every floor, the Shab-bus stops at every stop along its run and waits for two minutes – whether or not anyone is getting on or off. Like an elevator, it takes the same route and makes the same stops in both directions. It makes two runs in the morning, and then two runs after services.
In coming up with the idea, Rabbi Engelmayer reached back to the days when he studied in the Orthodox yeshiva that ordained him.
“One of the things we were taught once which always stuck with me is that there’s no issur – no prohibition- on going on a bus on Shabbos. The prohibition is getting on the bus if nobody else is at the stop, or getting off if there’s no one else on the bus, and, obviously, paying for it,” he said.
Those who ride the bus sing its praises.
“I love it. What can I tell you?” Myra Beth Brodsky said. She lives in Guttenberg, a four-block-wide town in Hudson County next to North Bergen, and has been a member of Beth El there “since forever.”
She walked to Beth El. “I like waking, but it’s too dangerous to walk from here to Cliffside Park,” she said.
“It’s very convenient, very comfortable, and the drivers are exceedingly nice,” said Pearl Sodowsky, who has lived in Cliffside Park for 40 years. She and her husband use the bus now. Before, sometimes they would walk to synagogue and sometimes they would drive.
The question of a Shabbos bus has been a matter of sporadic discussion among experts in Jewish law over the decades. In 1930, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, told a rabbi in Bombay that Jews could ride a trolley to and from synagogue if it were driven by non-Jews, made no stops specifically to pick up Jewish passengers, traveled through predominately non-Jewish neighborhoods, and did not require the Jewish riders to pay a fare or carry a ticket. Later, however, he reversed this decision.
Rabbi Uziel’s ruling was cited in the 1980s in a responsum by the Union for Traditional Judaism, a group that broke from the Conservative movement in opposition to its decision to ordain women as rabbis. (Rabbi Rabinowitz, by contrast, had advocated for women’s ordination on the Law Committee.) The union’s Rabbi David Novack admitted that “a halachic case could be made, at least in theory, for permitting a Shabbat bus,” but ruled against it.
More recently, an Orthodox rabbi, Jack Simcha Cohen, wrote a halachic defense of the idea in his book “Shabbat, The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas.” Rabbi Cohen, who was born in Asbury Park and died last summer, was rabbi emeritus at Congregation Aitz Chaim in West Palm Beach, Florida, the first Orthodox synagogue in Palm Beach County.
“I’m looking at the greater good,” Rabbi Engelmayer said. “Shuls drying up in a community is a tragedy, especially if there are people in the community who need to go to shul. We have people coming now from North Bergen who hadn’t come to shul in years.”
Besides letting people who couldn’t walk come to shul, the Shab-bus service also provides a safer way to get to shul for people who are happy to drive on Shabbat, even though they can no longer drive safely. “If I can prevent them from doing that then that would be wonderful,” Rabbi Engelmayer said.
He would like to expand the service into Edgewater.
The obstacle, however, is money. The $100 weekly fee for a cab is a strain on the synagogue’s budget. A full van would cost $300 or more weekly. “That’s not the kind of money we have right now,” said Rabbi Englemayer, who is seeking donors for the bus.
Meanwhile, the Shab-bus and the merger with Beth El has infused his congregation with new life on Shabbat morning.
“We used to average 25 people, now we average around 40,” he said. “It’s really wonderful to see.”