2 Adar 5772 / February 24-25, 2012
In this week’s portion, Terumah, we learn the very specific instructions communicated to the Israelites for constructing the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary that the Israelites would keep with them while wandering through the desert) and its furnishings (including the Ark of the Covenant, the Menorah, the Alter, etc.). With required contributions of gold, silver, copper, ram skins, oil and the like from the populace (we now begin to understand why it was essential that the Israelites leave Egypt with great material wealth), a picture is painted of a majestic dwelling place built in honor of God, who had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and given them the Torah.
The Tabernacle in many ways served as the logical precursor to the Holy Temple built in Jerusalem, which was even more impressive in its structure and grandeur (the Western Wall we visit in Israel now and that we deem our religion’s holiest site is but a small section of the outer protective wall of the ancient Temple).
It is no surprise that upon being exiled from Jerusalem and with the accompanying development of Diaspora Judaism (not to mention eventual suburbanization), that we decided to build grand structures of our own, in many ways meant to reflect the Tabernacle and the Temple: synagogues. Like the Tabernacle and Temple, our synagogues have arks, menorahs, curtains and tables. The eternal light that hangs in a synagogue’s sanctuary is meant to signify God’s presence, as the reason given for constructing the Tabernacle in this week’s portion is so that God may constantly dwell among the Israelites.
Needless to say, synagogues in America are currently struggling. Built to be awe-inspiring and to fit an entire congregation (who often only attend, if at all, on the High Holidays), these massive structures are under-utilized, rarely filled, and cost a significant amount of money to operate (think heating, electric, and cleaning costs, to name but a few). Those overhead costs are then inevitably passed along to potential members.
To attend Shabbat morning services in a sanctuary made to fit 1,000 people that has maybe 100 people in attendance doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re doing something meaningful as part of a community. While walking into the sanctuary may initially move you due to its beauty, you cannot help be left wondering: “Where is everyone else?” “Why am I here but no one else is?” “What could I have been doing with my time instead?” The ability to seek out and connect with the Divine (arguably the purpose of attending synagogue worship) is often not achievable with such questions, which are 100% legitimate, permeating our thoughts.
There has been a significant increase in the number and impact of independent minyanim (prayer groups) that are not affiliated with synagogues. These minyanim are often led by community members (rather than professional clergy), and meet in smaller spaces. The membership feels empowered, and recognizes that one can be authentically Jewish without a large physical building. Admittedly, these minyanim have this luxury due to not needing to accommodate a much larger number of attendees on the High Holidays, as a significant percentage of their membership attends services weekly, as opposed to annually.
The ability to form and participate in community exists everywhere – from synagogues, to parks, to our homes, and everywhere in between. A small room with no decoration or niceties, filled to capacity with those who are engaged and praying intensely, will always be a more attractive venue for prayer and community building than gigantic grandiose spaces devoid of people. The nature of the structure, no matter how grand or simple, doesn’t substitute for the collection of individuals who come together to pray and learn as part of a community.
Our ancestors built the Tabernacle, the Temple, and eventually beautiful synagogue structures, sparing no expense. As a community, we simply can no longer afford to operate enormous physical buildings for the sole purpose of catering to those who choose to visit them only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The model simply is not sustainable.
Finding substance, meaning and spirituality through Judaism is the common thread that links us to our ancestors. While the bricks and mortar have taken on different shapes and sizes, often reflecting the societies in which Jews lived, and the freedoms (or lack thereof) they enjoyed, in the end, the portability of Judaism – the substance – will render the form – the buildings – obsolete.
This Shabbat, reflect on where you feel most comfortable gathering as part of a group and why.
What kind of physical space allows you to create the greatest spiritual connection?
What kind of community allows you to create the same?
What are the conditions that would allow you to feel you are an integral part of your Jewish community?