The Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park, at the corner of 15th Avenue and 48th Street, is one of the oldest shuls in the Tri-State Area. The k’hilah was founded in 1902 and built its first building in 1906. The current three-story building, constructed in the early 1920s, is a magnificent and imposing building with a beautiful sanctuary.
The current rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Snow, assumed the mantle of leadership of the shul in 2000, after the passing of the previous Rabbi, Rabbi Israel Schorr z”l. Because it is such a beautiful building, the Young Israel of Beth El is occasionally rented out for various functions. One of those functions is the Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva High School graduation. As Prospect Park is a girls’ school, most of the attendees at the graduation are women. Therefore, it’s more practical for the women to sit in the main sanctuary and the men in the balcony, in what is usually the “women’s section” of the shul.
At the Prospect Park graduation held in the Young Israel Beth El building in 2002, one of the men in attendance was Dr. Neil Ringel, Rabbi Snow’s chavrusa. After the graduation ended, Rabbi Snow arrived to wish mazal tov to one of the families of a graduate he knew and to give his weekly Thursday night shiur. Dr. Ringel approached Rabbi Snow and informed him that he was concerned that the balcony had a maakeh issue. The Torah states that one must build a maakeh – a railing for his roof. Chazal explain that any high or potentially dangerous place, such as a swimming pool or a raised porch, must have an adequate railing for protection. The shul’s balcony had been constructed with a piece of the floor bent upwards forming the bottom of the balcony. Above that was a 26-inch gap, on top of which was another bar. The height of the second bar reached about 31 inches from the floor. Dr. Ringel was concerned that the railing was not halachically valid.
Rabbi Snow was stunned. Could it be that somehow this had gone unnoticed for 86 years since the building was constructed? The following morning, Rabbi Snow measured the height of the railing and realized immediately that Dr. Ringel was right. On a practical level, as well, the balcony seemed somewhat unsafe.
To complicate the matter, Rabbi Snow had become the Rabbi two years earlier and was about to complete his two-year contract, which meant the board would soon be voting about contract renewal and salary. It was not an ideal time to present the board with what would undoubtedly be a major expense. But if halachah demanded it, there was no room for equivocation.
Rabbi Snow consulted with Rabbi Dovid Feinstein zt”l and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz zt”l. They both agreed that the balcony had to be fixed. Rabbi Schwartz suggested that Rabbi Snow find out the legal requirements for the balconies of public buildings in New York City to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. Rabbi Snow was informed that the minimum height of a balcony is 40 inches (almost the same as 10 t’fachim). However, because their building was constructed well before those regulations were enacted, it was “grandfathered in” and legally it could not be mandated to raise the balcony. Still, the city representative urged Rabbi Snow to bring it up to code.
With that information, Rabbi Snow asked the president of the shul to convene a board meeting so he could discuss the matter. He decided that, come what may, it was his responsibility to ensure that halachah was maintained in the shul. If it would cost him a renewal of his contract, or forfeiting a raise, so be it!
The rabbi prepared the topic and arrived at the meeting to address the board. Before he could say anything, one board member emphatically announced that there was nothing wrong with the m’chitzah. Rabbi Snow replied that he had no qualms about the m’chitzah. Rather, he had come to discuss a problem with a maakeh. The man looked at the rabbi incredulously and asked, “What’s a maakeh?” Rabbi Snow proceeded to deliver a 15-minute mini-shiur about the laws of maakeh to the board. He then explained the situation with the balcony and why it would have to be redone. When he finished his lecture, the same fellow again asked, “What’s the problem with the m’chitzah? Rabbi Snow again replied that this had nothing to do with the m’chitzah. The man shot back, “Maakeh, m’chitzah, – it’s all the same!”
A discussion began to ensue between the various members of the board. At that point, the president respectfully asked Rabbi Snow to leave so they could vote about the matter. If he would be there, it would not be a proper vote.
Later that evening, Rabbi Snow nervously called the president to ask what the board had decided regarding the balcony. The president replied that they had agreed to proceed with the construction. He related that after the rabbi had left, one of the long-time board members, Mrs. Ringel, mother of the aforementioned Dr. Ringel, rapped on the table and said that she wanted to address the board. She said, “I don’t understand what is happening here! We have a Rabbi who informed us that as a matter of halachah something must be done. There is no vote on a matter of halachah! If the Rabbi said it must be done, there should not be any room for discussion here. If we call ourselves an Orthodox congregation, this is a moot matter.” Her argument carried the day and the vote passed 29-1.
A brass company came down and gave them an estimate of $27,000. The contractor said the work would take 2-3 months. Since this took place in August, that would mean the work would not be completed until after the Yamim Tovim. At first, the board protested that there was no way they could close the balcony for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when the building was packed with over a thousand people. The Rabbi explained that the balcony could remain open, except for the first two rows closest to the balcony. The board agreed and the shul placed caution tape behind the first two rows, which remained empty.
By November, the work was nearing completion. It was truly stunning. Rabbi Snow asked the contractor for the bill so he could submit it to the board. The contractor took out the bill, and in front of Rabbi Snow, tore it to shreds. He exclaimed, “This one is on me! I want to do this for the shul!” He was Jewish, though not at all religious. He was so enamored by the shul that he wanted to do something in its honor.
When reflecting on the story, Rabbi Snow muses that the lesson he took from the incident is that one must never cower in the face of halachic demands, even when doing so will entail dealing with adversity or struggle.
Not always does deciding to do the right thing warrant such a gratifying ending. In this instance, Hashem granted the shul the ability to upkeep halachah without it costing them a red cent. But our mission and responsibility is to adhere to halachah even if and when the “price tag” may be high. The price we pay is well worth the returns we will receive, even if it doesn’t seem that way to the physical eye.
 - I originally heard this story from Rabbi Noach Sauber (assistant principal of RTMA, learning director of Camp Dora Golding, and a personal rebbe and mentor) this past summer. Rabbi Moshe Snow is his uncle. I am grateful to Rabbi Snow for reviewing the details of this story and the article.
 - See D’varim 22:8.
 - The maakeh must be at least ten t’fachim tall around the edge of the roof, and is only required if the roof is at least ten t’fachim off the ground. According to Rav Chaim Na’ah, it is about 31.5 inches. According to the Igros Moshe (Orach Chayim 1:136), it is between 35.6 and 38.4 inches, and according to the Chazon Ish, it is about 40 inches.
It is important to note that there is a concept in halachah called “lavud.” Lavud means that we consider any gap of less than three t’fachim as though it’s connected.
 - On second thought, it was logical that just as he had never sat up in the balcony to realize the problem, neither had his predecessor.
 - Rabbi Snow had been involved in the Young Israel under the guidance of Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz at the Young Israel of Boro Park, originally as the shul’s Youth Director since 1968. When Rabbi Schwartz left the shul to become the Av Beis Din of Chicago in 1986, Rabbi Snow became the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Boro Park. When Young Israel merged with Beth El in 1988, Rabbi Snow became associate rabbi to Beth El’s longtime rabbi, Rabbi Israel Schorr. When Rabbi Schorr passed away in 2000, Rabbi Snow became the Rabbi.
 - The lone dissenter said that he voted against it just to ensure that it was a democratic process.
 - As an obvious postscript, Rabbi Snow was rehired and is still the Rabbi of the shul.
 - It’s important to note that the Gemara (Chulin 136a), and also the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, rule that a shul is exempt from maakeh. However, Rabbi Snow explained that Rabbi Schwartz and Rabbi Feinstein advised that because this was a case of possible danger, as the railing was very low, it was proper to change it. It was more in the category of V’lo sasim damim b’veisecha, a prohibition against maintaining something dangerous in one’s home. See the Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat 427. I did not change it in the text in order to raise awareness of the issue of maakeh in our homes.