Does Judaism need buildings?

(Delivered Shabbat Terumah 5778 / February 16, 2018 in Kehilat Tzur Hadassah with guests from Temple Sinai of Roslyn, NY)

The meeting of our congregations this evening is an opportunity to get to know people who live on different sides of the world, see what we have in common and also what we have to learn from each other.  One such example is visiting a Reform synagogue in Israel versus a Reform synagogue in America.  The vast majority of American Reform congregations have a substantial building – a sanctuary that seats a few hundred, a wing of classrooms, an office for a few staff members and a meeting room.  A reception hall and a entry way.  In Israel, more than half of the Reform communities do not have a building of their own.  And of those that have a building, most are very modest , as you can see here.

In America, Jewish communities must fund themselves and are the sole providers of Jewish culture, religious services, and Jewish education.  The community as a whole is relatively affluent vis-a-vis the general society.  In Israel, Jews are found in every economic stratum.  Jewish identity is formed everywhere – Bible studies in public schools, Hebrew in the streets, city-wide cultural festivals for holidays.  Israelis are experts at creating ceremonies.

How, then, I constantly ask myself, should a synagogue building in Israel be used?  Ought this building to be a museum/art gallery or a multipurpose community center?  Ought it to be solely a house of traditional prayer and study or also a preschool?  Ought it only to be utilized a few hours a week or filled from morning to night with different activities?  Add to that the cozy atmosphere of people’s living rooms or the wonderful tradition of going out together on a Shabbat morning for a tiyul, excursion in nature.

For what do we need a building?  That is one of the central questions surrounding this week’s Torah portion “Teruma”, which means “contribution.”  G-d commands Moses to tell the people to bring contributions to build a Tabernacle, a structure to facilitate the worship of G-d, with the stated purpose, וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם: “Make me a Tabernacle and I will dwell among them. (Exodus 25:10)  The Tabernacle was a tangible structure to help the people see and feel G-d’s presence, as it appears to have been difficult so far for the people to grasp the concept of an incorporeal G-d. In general it fulfilled a wholly human need.

At the height of the ancient state of Israel, King Solomon undertakes to build the Temple.  It is based on the plans of the Tabernacle, but it is quite different – now a permanent building and the proportions were larger (traditional sources claim it was twice the size as the Tabernacle). His authority to change the instructions so carefully delineated in the Torah is mentioned in Chronicles I (28:19) that King David passed the building instructions on to his son, having received them from G-d himself. Clearly, also, the plans were changed to reflect the new reality – a symbol of the glory of an empire and a centralized authority in Jerusalem, the capital.  After the destruction of the Temples, the main buildings are called Beit Kenesset (House of Meeting), Beit Midrash (House of Study), and Beit Tefila (House of Prayer), ranging from small structures to large institutions in major centers, such as the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbadita in Babylon (~500-1000 CE).

A building is important.  It is a symbol – its appearance as well as its content tell a story about the values of the particular community or society, which is important for us internally and also to explain to newcomers and visitors.  I can take as an example the ancient synagogue in Ein Gedi from the 3rd century which I recently visited.  I learn from the mosaics on the floor the values of that particular community.  The names of the generations  of humanity as known from the Bible signify the connection to history.  The signs of the zodiac signify a community that interacted with and synthesized the dominant Greek culture.  The inscription warning people not to share the secrets of the community which were the source of their wealth signify the sense of communal responsibility one for the other.

I think we have to be in constant dialogue with our building, to check how it aesthetically reflects our values and how the activities take place within our space are an expression of our values.   When I look around our space, where do I see the elements of our community’s vision statement: egalitarianism, pluralism, social justice, Zionism, innovation, tradition, religion, culture, education, adults, youth, children, relationship with local authorities and Jews from all over the world?

Also, we must each of us think of our synagogue like our second home  and take care of it as if it were our personal home.  If I see a garbage, I should feel responsible to take the extra five minutes before rushing out, and throw it away.  If I want to feel that this is a sacred space, I need to contribute to my ideas and my funds/fundraising efforts.  Even if the way we give and what we give shifts with time, our time to give never ends.

Tonight, our building is a true House of Gathering (Beit Kenesset).  I pray that it offers us shelter so that we can meet safely and peacefully.  I pray that within it we find connection with our Creator and with G-d’s Creations; inspiration for living meaningful lives enriched by Jewish tradition; and a sense of commitment to social justice for our people and for all humanity.

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