I was doing errands on this rainy Memorial Day. One of them was a stop at my synagogue.
I pulled into the lot, where a single car was parked. Clearly everyone (except the owner of the car) had left for the afternoon, but I know the front-door code, so I let myself in.
Hoping that the car I saw in the lot belonged to someone who had a key to the office, where I wanted to leave an envelope, I searched the building. I couldn’t find anyone, so I decided to leave a note and slide it under the office door.
I stopped at a table in the foyer and began to write when I heard a soft voice coming out of the sanctuary across from where I was standing. I assumed that whoever was inside was the owner of the car in the parking lot, possibly instructing a future bar mitzvah or viewing the space for an upcoming simcha.
Suddenly, the sanctuary door opened, and a middle-aged woman, dressed in work clothes, rushed out. I spend a lot of time at the shul, on Shabbat and during the week, but I had never seen her there before.
She seemed to be confused, troubled and nervous. How did she get into the building? The synagogue is very careful about security. Had someone let her in?
I wondered if she was new to the maintenance staff or had come in that morning and stayed in the sanctuary after everyone else had left.
“Do you speak English?” the woman asked me.
I smiled and said, “Do you mean do I speak another language besides Hebrew?”
“Don’t all of you speak a different language?” she asked in all innocence.
Though sorely tempted, I didn’t jump at this teaching moment. “I speak English,” I answered. “Are you looking for something?”
“Do you people pray?” she asked.
“Yes, of course we do. You just came out of the area where we pray. Is that what you came here to do?”
“I need to pray.” She began to cry, and when I say cry, I mean cry. “Can you help me pray?”
I didn’t know whether to make a hasty exit or try to help her. I was reluctant to leave her in the building alone, but she had been there alone before I got there. I looked into the sanctuary; with the rain dulling the windows, it was almost completely dark.
Had the woman been unable to find the light switch, or had she been sitting without light by choice? I didn’t offer to put the light on.
“Let’s see if the rain has let up,” I suggested. “We can talk outside.” Maybe Memorial Day memories triggered her sadness and anxiety.
I slipped my note under the office door and gestured for the woman to follow me out, but she held her ground.
“I can’t leave. Can you find somebody here who can pray with me?”
I was reluctant to reveal that she and I were probably the only people in the building. “I don’t know where everybody is right now, and there’s no point in waiting around for them. Let’s go before the rain gets any worse.”
“But I have to pray!” she insisted, wiping her eyes with a bunch of wadded tissues. She turned and disappeared back into the dark sanctuary.
“I hope your prayers are answered!” I called after her.
I hopped over puddles to my car and sat there, thinking. Was I a coward? Was I heartless? I wanted to help her, but an inner voice of caution held me back. Should I call someone to check on her (and the alarm system)?
Before I could make up my mind, the woman walked out. Dabbing her eyes, she stepped into the rain and looked around, probably hoping for someone more accommodating and sympathetic, then she drove away.
I followed her and saw her pull into a church down the street, where many cars were parked. A sign near the entrance read, “Memorial Day Programs and Services.” It was pouring harder than before, but she didn’t seem to notice as she ran in.