Sign In Forgot Password

Parshat Terumah - "Let them make for Me a Sanctuary"/ 21st  century synagogue realities and challenges

27/02/2023 09:34:28 AM


A week and a half ago, on two consecutive days, the same person attacked two different Jews coming out of two different synagogues in Los Angeles. These acts of hatred were among the latest examples of Jew-hatred in the so-called civilized world. I am sure that the attacker did not care what brand of synagogue it was. He was simply and cruelly attacking Jews coming out from their shul. As I wrote in a blog a couple of weeks ago, the anti-Semites do a better job than Jews do in understanding that we are all part of one people. Internally, however, we Jews tend to tear each other apart over ideological, halakhic, denominational, and other concerns. 

Our shul, Beth Emeth, is a traditional shul. While we have evolved several practices over the years, we are true to the vision that created our synagogue in the 1950's. Several weeks ago, I was asked by our own shul leadership to formulate a working hypothesis on defining what a traditional shul is, and how it is not Orthodox, liberal, or egalitarian. I posted my interpretation on our website a number of weeks ago.

While Beth Emeth may have its own working definition of what kind of shul we are, the most important criterion is that we are Jewish and that we are welcoming to anyone, Jew or non-Jew, religious, cultural, or secular, who chooses to enter our synagogue space. We are not smug, self-righteous, or triumphant to think that our model of Judaism is the only one that works. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues and non-rabbinic friends who are involved in Chabad, Aish, Orthodox, Conservative-egalitarian, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues. Personally, I tend to have more respect for a Jew who attends his/her liberal or more Orthodox synagogue every week than the one who begrudgingly attends his/her other synagogue once a year with only words of criticism and condemnation.

Does any single kind of shul have all the answers? NO! And with minor exception, all kinds of synagogues are struggling to find successful ways of attracting the next generations of Jews.

When I first came to Toronto in 2000, I honestly thought that COR stood for Conservative, Orthodox, Reform-Reconstructionist working on Kashrut standards together. How wrong I was, but it is still an idealistic image for me.

When my older son began his working career in Alpena, Michigan, the only synagogue for a hundred miles was a 20-family small Reform congregation near where he lived. The group would meet one Friday night a month and one Shabbat morning a month. My son asked me whether he should participate or not. The services were truncated; the kitchen was dairy but not Kosher; the attendees were largely intermarried or secular. I encouraged him to attend. This congregation was founded in the mid 1800's and was still meeting in the same house as it was since the 1890's. The current members were perpetuating a Jewish presence in a small town and could have chosen to give up. Before too long, my son was helping to lead the services and training future prayer leaders for when his career would take him elsewhere. He now lives in Denver and still manages their website. I was a guest rabbi for them three times in person and have run Zoom programs with them twice.

When the Pandemic began, we and some other well-known Conservative synagogues in the area started talking about sharing our resources while maintaining our individual distinctiveness. With diminishing affiliations in many congregations, I and some others had a dream of creating a sort of Syna plex or 21st century model of a U.S. Hillel house. A traditional shul like ours and a local Conservative-egalitarian shul could maintain their religious individuality and yet become a unified harmonious institution, where the participating members could pay one fee and choose when, how and where to celebrate a preferred style of Shabbat prayer, Holy Day prayer, the nature of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and more. As a university student, the Boston University Hillel I attended had under one affiliation the choice for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox prayer every Shabbat and holy day, with everyone joining for the same Kiddush afterwards. Am I dreaming crazy that multiple congregations could create a unified model which preserves their particular identities? Can we not find a way to have our cake and eat it too, finding a meaningful niche for everyone???

I believe that today's Parsha supports everything I am saying. Parshat Terumah is the instructional manual for creating the 21st century post-pandemic syna plex model. First, everyone participated freely and creatively by contributing what ever they could toward a shared enterprise. "Take for Me a Terumah, a free will offering, from everyone whose heart stirs him or her - gold, silver, copper, and so much more to choose from. The ultimate purpose - "Let them make a Mikdash, a sanctuary, for Me that I may dwell among them." The purpose of a synagogue is not to close God's presence within man-made walls, but to spiritually enrich God's presence within the hearts, minds, and souls of every single person. No one Jew and no one synagogue could ever do it all alone. Last week's theme of every Israelite contributing a half shekel tax reminds us that alone we are incomplete. A Jew alone, even a synagogue alone in a large city like Toronto, is incomplete. All Jews, all brands of congregations, should be finding ways to complete each other's needs as best as possible. 

How ironic that an evil anti-Semite has no problem identifying a Jew or a synagogue. How ironic that all too often we Jews ourselves become smug and self-righteous in how we look with disdain at how other Jews and synagogues are professing their approaches to Judaism.

Can a variety of segments in the Jewish community come together and create an exciting new vision based on today's Torah's words, "V'Asu Li Mikdash V'Shachanti B'Tocham -Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."???????

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Howard Morrison

Tue, 27 February 2024 18 Adar I 5784