There is something sweet — and savory — at the daily end of services at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Immediately after reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, a liturgical hymn delivered for the dead, worshippers remove their religious garments and amble to a nearby table. Spread over a colorful cloth is cake, cheese, carrots, gefilte fish, cucumbers, tomatoes and bagels.
“Sometimes there’s egg salad,” said Dee Selekman, a volunteer and frequent presence at the Squirrel Hill synagogue.
For the past seven years, Selekman has spent nearly every Monday through Friday morning preparing breakfast for an unknown amount of eaters.
“We could have 20 at services and five stay or 15 come and 12 stay,” she said. “I never know.”
More certain are the staple items served: English muffins, cream cheese and bagels. Those are always on the table, she explained.
Selekman was introduced to the task by Rabbi Michael Werbow, Beth Shalom’s former spiritual leader.
“Abe Salem used to do breakfast, and when he was sitting shiva the keys were handed over to me,” she said.
When the official responsibility was finally conferred, Selekman instituted some changes to a program that began in 1985.
“Abe had four different keys for four different things,” she recalled. “That was something I couldn’t handle. I had the locks changed and had one key for everything.”
The other alteration regarded refreshments.
“The whole shul was decaf coffee,” Selekman said. “When I took over I brought in caffeinated coffee.”
Since its inception more than a generation ago there have been other adjustments to the Jewish breakfast club, explained Milt Eisner, a past president of Beth Shalom.
“It started out with just bagels and coffee,” said Eisner.
The meeting spot was also different, as the group convened “downstairs.”
After rebuilding from the 1996 fire — which destroyed several floors of the Rose Hyman Kaufmann Community Building, a five story structure — the present location for was selected. Services occur in the Homestead Hebrew Chapel and breakfast is in the adjacent Eisner Commons. The abutting kitchen is designated “for dairy,” explained Selekman, who typically shops for milk, vegetables, pastries and other products once a week.
“This is my way of giving back to the shul,” she said.
Now I’m part of a community. There’s a whole group of us who don’t have to be here, but we just come anyway.
Although Selekman had been a member of Beth Shalom since 1973, in 2004 her presence at the morning services increased.
“I started coming here when my mom passed away,” she said.
Wishing to say the Mourner’s Kaddish in the company of others, Selekman spent a year alongside fellow daveners. When the formal period of grieving concluded, she remained.
“Now I’m part of a community,” she said. “There’s a whole group of us who don’t have to be here, but we just come anyway.”
Whether helping congregants reach a quorum, setting up sweets or “making phone calls to give members a heads-up about yahrzeits,” Selekman “works behind the scenes to connect people to Beth Shalom and to each other,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson, Beth Shalom’s spiritual leader.
Selekman said that her activities are a continuation of earlier enterprises; after teaching Hebrew school at Tree of Life, she become the educational director of Temple Sinai and eventually executive director of NA’AMAT USA, Pittsburgh Council.
But there is something special about nourishing others at sunrise, noted Eisner.
In 1984, “I was traveling to other cities,” he said. “I was saying Kaddish at that time” and noticed congregations offered breakfast after praying, he added. After services, in which the final utterance is relegated to mourners, “it’s nice to have a little comradeship.”
Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Eisner worked with Rabbi Morris Sklar to create a similar environment at Beth Shalom. Sklar used to “be in charge of the minyan and read all of the yahrzeits,” Eisner explained.
Together, they instituted an atmosphere where solace and nosh have been available for more than 30 years.
“We’re like a social group,” said Selekman.
“The same women and men come in every morning,” echoed Eisner.
Before turning on the toaster, Selekman invoked a Hebrew word, whose biblical origin connotes an assembly, to describe the early morning activities at Beth Shalom: “It is a kehillah.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.