Mike Provost was a devout Catholic who never missed a Sunday Mass. He also lived inside Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody and knew more about Jewish law than many of its congregants.
This may seem incongruous, but there were once many people like Provost, on the North Shore and around the world: non-Jewish synagogue custodians who often lived on-site and became integral, beloved members of the congregation. “He was a great guy, and a good, good friend to all in the temple, and was always doing favors for individuals,” said Mel Babner, a Ner Tamid congregant who grew close to Provost during the roughly 25 years he served the temple. Babner said that Provost helped his daughter move her bed from one house to another, one of many favors he did for no money. To protect the synagogue, he carried a gun.
“He loved living in the synagogue, he loved the Jewish people, and we depended on him,” Babner continued.
Today, synagogue custodians often work for larger contracting services and work part-time, which means that congregants don’t personally know them the way that they used to. But until recently, non-Jewish synagogue custodians performed a wide array of important duties, and were on a first-name basis with all the synagogue regulars. Just like Provost, other long-time synagogue custodians often go well beyond their assigned responsibilities, and help out congregants in need beyond the walls of the temple.
“I don’t think people thought of him as the custodian – I think people thought of him as part of the temple. He was part of the family,” said Allison Wolper about Elmer Fitzgerald, the custodian of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly from 1958 to 1985, who lived in a house owned by the temple right next door. Fitzgerald, with occasional help from his wife and son, provided temple security, supervised cleaning, event preparation and cleanup, dishwashing, painting, general building maintenance, and fundraising events. He even wore a suit to temple events.
Carl Palleschi, the custodian at Temple Sinai for over 30 years who lived with his wife in a two-bedroom on-site apartment, also wore a suit, tie, and yarmulke to services. His successor Bob Myra, who has worked at Temple Sinai in Marblehead for over 25 years, wears a yarmulke whenever he’s inside the shul. “He had an interest about learning in Judaism, and so for instance, he knew when we get to Ein Keloheinu, the services were gonna be over soon, so he recognized enough about the service that he would know when to put the bagels in, and when to get ready for Oneg Shabbat and Kiddush,” said Sinai congregant Jonathan Leamon about Myra. “He learned about kashrut. This is somebody who never had any training in Judaism who had to learn about kashrut and ritual so that he didn’t screw up the dishes and the silverware in the kitchen, and knew enough about all that so he could properly supervise it.”
At the former Temple Israel in Swampscott, Al Ellery lived in an apartment above the kitchen and stage in the 1960s, and George Jolley took over in the 1970s, said Gary Insuik, whose late father Milton served as president of the temple.
In addition to kashrut, gentile custodians help synagogues honor the rules of Shabbat by serving performing duties forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. At Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, custodians Gustavo Ventura, Eridania Vicioso, and Yanira Martinez turn lights and ovens on and off. At Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, Frank Johnston turns on the coffee pot and shovels snow. Over the years, luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Martin Scorcese, and Colin Powell all served in these roles at various points in their lives.
Currently, electronic timers and more relaxed attitudes about Shabbat restrictions in Conservative and Reform congregations mean that there is generally less of a need for gentile custodians. What’s more, the practice isn’t actually endorsed by Jewish law. Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14-15 advise that Jews must let their “servants, strangers, and work animals” rest as well. However, this prohibition has been interpreted in many ways.
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, said it is forbidden to employ a gentile to work specifically on Shabbat. “You’re supposed to employ someone who makes their living Monday through Friday, and it just so happens that they’re there on Saturday or Friday night, and so you’re paying them for Monday through Friday, and then part of their salary goes to them being there on Shabbat and doing certain things. There’s loopholes in place to put a fence around the Torah so you’re not breaking the law.”
Jews are not allowed to directly ask for a gentile to do any of the tasks. They must instead find ways to ask indirectly. For example, if Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody, a shomer Shabbat Orthodox congregation, wanted to turn on a light, he would mention, “It’s awfully dark in here,” to his gentile early childcare director, rather than asking her to directly to turn on the lights.
A non-Jewish woman knows these complex rules so well that she never needs to be asked to do them because she shares a few things in common with the many other gentiles who have long played a vital role in the functioning of synagogues: longevity, dedication and expertise. “She’s been with us for 15 years,” said Schusterman. “We have a wonderful relationship, and she happens to know the laws of Judaism better than many Jews.”