If you build it, they will come — right?
Mike Soroker’s Field of Dreams moment came exactly two years ago while sitting in a hospital bed.
Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, of which Soroker is a member, used to have tashlich services at a neighbor’s creek, which is about six-tenths of a mile from the synagogue.
The only problem was congregants had to cross Washington Crossing Road to get there. Soroker said it is more of a highway than a road, as cars whiz by at an average of 60 miles per hour.
“There’s no sidewalks. There’s no shoulder. So they had to walk on uneven land,” he said. No one ever got hurt crossing over to the creek, but the walk was “scary as heck.”
While recovering in the hospital, Soroker couldn’t stop thinking about those safety risks.
“It just nagged at me,” he recalled. “I needed to find a way to solve it.”
He spent hundreds of hours researching tashlich ponds, and he said a man-made one — including a stream and a pond — had not yet been built in the United States.
He partnered with Angel Falls Design, a company that builds ponds and streams, and came up with the idea to build the synagogue’s own tashlich pond.
He presented his research to the rabbi and worked with Newtown Township — only to get the project denied numerous times over 18 months.
“They kept on giving us regulations that we could not easily handle,” he said. “What I thought was simple turned out to be a major problem with regard to zoning and other government bureaucracy.”
So they simplified the idea: Instead of a pond, they’d build a stream that would empty into what would simulate a pond. In other words, the pond would not be as deep to conflict with the township’s rules.
But they were once again denied, so Soroker took it upon himself to write to the township about the importance of this pond. Two days later, they got approved.
Construction was completed last week, and the pond will be properly dedicated Sept. 17 at noon ahead of its first official use on Rosh Hashanah.
It also doesn’t hurt that the pond happens to be aesthetically pleasing on the front-end of the shul’s property.
The 150-foot stream includes a waterfall on a natural slope, which flows into a simulated pond, as well as aquatic plants, walkways, fish, stones and a large patio.
Rabbi Aaron Gaber nicknamed the pond gan mayim, which means water garden.
It also uses natural water from a 400-foot well they were able to access.
“If the water ever goes too low, because of wind or temperatures, we automatically can tap into the well without human incentives,” he said. “And we made it ecologically balanced so we don’t have to clean it, so it’s an easy thing to deal with.”
The rules of tashlich simply require a body of water and preferably fish. Soroker said because fish don’t have eyelids, they represent the liturgical concept of providing “a relationship to God with the eyes open.”
The pond cost Soroker and his wife, Barbara, upward of $71,000, which was donated to the congregation by the family, including their two children Zeva and Eric.
They will also add a generator for the entire synagogue as a preventative measure in case of power outages, as well as cover the future maintenance costs of the pond.
The Sorokers put together a perpetual fund for those maintenance costs, though he’s unsure how much that will be.
“We don’t want it to be a burden on the synagogue, so we will take care of that forever,” he said. “It’s something that even when my wife and I first got married, all we had was a couple pots and pans. No car, no television. But we worked hard to build our funds up, and it’s time for us to give back.”
Soroker predicts the pond will be used throughout the rest of the year, like for Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.
“My wife and family wanted to provide this as a safety solution, which now has turned into a beautiful addition to synagogue for use of all kinds,” he said.
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