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A message from Rabbi Eric Woodward
As Jews we know that we can pray anywhere, and God will hear our prayers. At the same time, Judaism recognizes that being in the right surroundings makes it easier to experience God’s presence. In parashat T’rumah, in the book of Exodus 25:8, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
“Exactly as I show you,” God continues, “the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.”
We no longer receive divine blueprints for our synagogues, but we know that the design and furnishings of a synagogue can enhance our connection to God. That’s why I was excited when president Yaron Lew approached me about the plan to redesign the sanctuary at BEKI. We have the chance to actually model our sanctuary on our relationship with the divine and our connections with each other.
One of the big changes to Jewish life that happened in twentieth-century America was that synagogues adopted the architecture of Protestant churches, with a front-to-back hierarchy. The rabbi teaches from a high platform and prayers are offered from the front of the room on behalf of a largely passive audience.
Today we are reclaiming another model, recognizing that the ten people required for our services are equals and that the Torah is meant to be accessible to all.
The book of Proverbs teaches b’rov am hadrat hamelekh, the splendor of God is among the people. What would it look like if our spiritual space were designed to express our values — to express that at BEKI, and in our vision of a redeemed world, there is no front or back, but rather bonds of equality and love that connect us to each other and to God? At BEKI, we deeply value all the voices in our diverse congregation and seek to hear them all. What would it be like to pray in a space that reflected our religious priorities, along with well-documented insights about spaces that are conducive to congregational singing?
Redesigning the sanctuary is a big project. One of my teachers, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, says of synagogue life: “Anything can happen. But nothing has to happen.” He means that it’s easy to be static. It is easy to hold by “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But if we did that, we would be passing the challenge on to future generations.
The time for this redesign is not far off in the future; it is already here. The question is just whether we will boldly step out to prepare for it, or scramble to keep up with it. In an uncertain world, rather than hinder ourselves and burden the next generation with a worship space that is out of sync with our values and with what we know works in the contemporary Jewish world, we can make it happen now. Let the congregants of ten, twenty, forty, sixty years from now say: “Wow, BEKI of 2022 decided to invest in themselves and in the future. They were visionaries.”
We have the will to do this now. We have the vision and the energy of a smart and talented community. “If not now, when?” is fully applicable here.
Nothing has to happen, but we can make anything happen. The chance to be our best selves, our authentic Jewish selves, and to have this redound to the benefit and future of our community, is a great one. Will it cost us financially in the near term? Yes. Will it pay dividends in the future? Ken y’hi ratzon! May it be God’s will.