Dr Judith Guedalia

On Community Service: Kohanim And Cities Of Refuge
On a recent Shabbat my grandson commented on how quickly I walked "considering " - for the sake of his present and future birthday gifts from me, I felt sure he was referring to my height-challenged state; he being close to six feet tall and my standing at a mere 5 feet 2 inches (in shoes). 
Our "quick walk" gave me an opportunity to fill him in on how I became so skilled in fast walking.  On the chagim: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach,and Shavuot I used to accompany my father, z"l, as he almost ran between the two synagogues which my two grandfathers attended.  As the oldest in my family, I can recall being about 8 years old and joining my father, who was a Kohen, first at the S & P (Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan) where my mother's father prayed (they began davening very early), and then running it to the WSIS (West Side Institutional Synagogue) where he joined his father in duchaning (giving the Priestly blessing) on the holidays.  If you have never been to the S&P on a Shabbat or even gone to the annual Tisha B'Av service (in the dark!), let me describe what "attending" to a Kohen before he was "on" entails.
In the S&P the Kohanim, at that time my father was one of two, (more about Captain Philips, the other Kohen another time) had a special place in the anteroom of the synagogue to sit and change into their plain black sneakers (no brown paper slippers there!), and their Silk Top Hats!  My job was to use a special velvet-napped small pillow to smooth the nap on the hat. As the Kohanim walked down the long path reaching the Heichal/Ark to the accompaniment of the full male choir, they were wearing their Top Hats and sneakers.  At the bottom of the grand marble steps stood the Levite (Levi or firstborn if a Levi was not present) with a huge silver pitcher and bowl to wash the Kohen's hands prior to his giving the benediction.  Then they walked up approximately ten steps and facing the Heichal, placed their Tallit over their heads said the blessing to begin the prayer.  After that they turned toward the congregants and began to repeat the Hazan's word for word rendition of the Priestly Benediction.  I recall how neat and uniform (flat headed due to the Top Hats) the Kohanim looked from the women's balcony (girls, no matter how young, never sat in the men's section).
Once the morning prayer (Shaharit) was over, we reversed the getting attired bit, and began our fast-walk along the six long blocks to the WSIS were there were more Kohanim, Levites and my grandfather, z"l, with whom to duchan.  "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom " kept us from our job. Kohanim who duchan together form a bond, a club of sorts, however, little did my grandfather and one of his duchaning buddy's imagine that over 50 years later their great-grandchildren would meet and marry in Israel!!!
It wasn't until my husband became the rav of the Syrian Community in Los Angeles that I discovered that in some communities Kohanim were in the majority, or so it seemed.  Our first Shabbat in our new community was an eye opener, when the Hazan called up the Kohanim it seemed as though 90 percent of the men took off their shoes and went up to the Heichal.  (Outside of Israel, only the Sephardic communities duchan on Shabbat, in Israel both Ashkenazim and Sephardim do so).  
It made me wonder if Aleppo, Syria was a city of Kohanim as had been Nob, Anatot or possibly Modiin (from whence the Maccabees hailed).  There is a Tel Beit Shemesh (Tel is a hill or mound; the word is used to refer to a type of archaeological site), which is thought to have been an Ir (city) Kohanim too. 
In the time of Joshua 48 cities of Leviim were established.  Many of them had neighborhoods for Kohanim and would then be referred to as Ir Kohanim. There were also six original Cities of Refuge (three on each side of the Jordan river) set up.  These were cities where a person who killed someone accidentally could relocate to, in order to be safe from the families of the person they killed unwittingly and who were legally permitted to take revenge (Goel HaDam). Besides these, the 48 cities for Leviim could and were used in this fashion as well. The whole topic of City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) is fascinating and may be understood as a prescient therapeutic environment for people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following the horrific experience of accidental killing.*
The Kohanim and Leviim of these cities may be seen as having a social service/social workers' obligation to help rehabilitate the emotionally wounded accidental killers and the family members who accompanied them.  It might be understood that their labors in the Temple (as opposed to being farmers and/or involved in animal husbandry) allowed them time, patience and skills to work with people from all walks of life. 

 All of these fractured associations came to my mind, as we were flooded with shocking images in recent newspaper headlines.  Clearly, all Jews feel communally responsible when some among us misbehave in a fashion that brings shame upon us all.  At these times its important that we not forget the great community services historically done by Kohanim and Leviim, which many segments of our community have taken upon themselves to support.  Specifically the Syrian and Hassidic communities of the North East, West Coasts and South America have been instrumental in supporting many charities, day schools, Mikvaot (Ritual Baths), critical care for the aged, visiting the sick and many other individuals and institutions. 

             Let us not measure ourselves by the very few people who make negative headlines, but rather allow the Ultimate Judge to work in His own glorious fashion.


*Accidental Death: A New Look At An Ancient Model by Guedalia, J; Debow,Y;Debow,D  (http://index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=36&Itemid=55)

Tags: Community Services | Jewish Press | Kohanim | Leviim