“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)
Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.
On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.
When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.
As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.
I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?
The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.
As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.
We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.
We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I have come to a “new” understanding of why the Torah spends so much time describing in such detail each of the pieces and furnishings that ultimately are put together to form the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which the Israelites carried with them through the wilderness. This tabernacle was not a typical construction project. It could not be built from the ground up, foundation poured, walls erected, plumbing, wiring and air ducts all in their proper place. No, the tabernacle had to be created section by section, each seemingly independent of the other, only to finally be put together by Moses. A tribute to the masterful nature of the design, every piece fit together as it was intended. The tent team, the altar team, the curtain team, the menorah team–each team worked simultaneously to create its assigned part in its own individual silo. Ultimately, and perhaps miraculously, everything fit together to form a suitable dwelling place for God’s presence. The success of the project points to the ingenuity of its management and to the Divine inspiration of the plan. The achievement is all the more remarkable when we consider how difficult it can be to recognize how actions inside our individual silos can affect or impinge upon the work of others and their interests.
Our neighborhood high school endured a few difficult days last week, as the students prepared for the opening of their production of “The Producers.” The school got some undesired attention over some props that were photographed hanging in the school auditorium. Swastikas, to be exact. These swastikas are part of the set of this particular play. I saw them on stage in the Broadway production. Certainly, as a Jew and as a grandson of Holocaust survivors, I found the symbols offensive, both on Broadway and on the TZHS stage. Then again, there is much that takes place on Broadway that can be considered offensive in the spirit of entertainment. Artistic productions are often meant to shock us and to shake us. I have no doubt that Mel Brooks knew his “Springtime for Hitler” would raise more than a few eyebrows along with uncomfortable laughter. The same symbols left on display in a school auditorium, however, can be quite jarring. When the unsuspecting student or parent walks into a space with these symbols present or sees them displayed on social media, it is perfectly understandable to react with hurt and fear. That is the natural reaction which the symbol evokes for many of us.
The lesson the Torah teaches me, however, is that there was a lost opportunity here, as is all too often the case. In a school that makes an effort to teach it’s children about the Holocaust, even having survivors come address the teens, this production should have been seen as an opportunity to integrate history, civics, entertainment, culture, and community building. Discussions about free speech and artistic expression–and the ways in which these things can touch certain nerves and test the limits of propriety– could have been part of the planning in bringing this production to life. Greater understanding and appreciation might have been the byproduct of such discussions. Thoughtful compromise between the risqué Broadway production and a toned-down high school version of the production might have been reached, weeks if not months before the production was set to go. In the end, the banners did not hang, though individuals wore the emblem on armbands as part of their costumes. The same conclusion might have been reached without insults and accusations had the original plan been blessed with a little more wisdom.
An event such as this–and the appalling events and attitudes we witness from some of our candidates running for office–points to the need for the exercise of a social correctness that is characterized by our proactive pursuit of teaching moments, and that isn’t dismissed with a pejorative. Insensitivity to the feelings, vulnerabilities and needs of others cannot be tolerated in public discourse, unless our intention is to create a tent that will only hold the few. Similarly, we need to practice sensitivity in the interpersonal realm until it becomes second nature.
It is possible to express one’s opinions, qualifying that they are based on a certain set of beliefs and granting that there are counterbalancing and competing claims. If we wield our opinions as weapons to shut down opposition or to denigrate those who are not swayed, any conversation is over before it starts and any possibility of learning or growth is lost. In fact, our actions and our words will be far more effective and persuasive if we consider from the outset how they will impinge on others and how they will be heard best. With a little more consideration, empathy and forethought, we may change a few minds yet, and even coax a few laughs along the way. Maybe then the sanctuary we put together will be a tent which God would be happy to call home.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
“Circle time” in my 6th grade classroom is an invaluable teaching tool, especially at the end of the day, after the kids have had 7 hours of public school and another hour of religious school. I ask the students to move the tables against the walls and to pull out their chairs into the center. The students know that something different—maybe even special—is about to happen. A conversation is going to take place. Everyone will be expected to participate. There will be no corners in which to get lost.
When a couple planning a marriage comes to seek my guidance, I ask them if they have ever considered a chuppah in the round. It is certainly non-traditional; the space may not accommodate it; the aisle may not be long enough. But who wants to be in the back row when the friend you love is getting married? And who wants to be the last person standing in a row of bridesmaids, unable to witness the events under the marriage canopy?
Last week, one of my religious school students decided he wasn’t comfortable learning the dance I was teaching in our recess-time elective. Even as I explained that all the best athletes dance for balance, strength and flexibility, I realized that I could not move this boy past the discomfort of joining hands in a circle.
The intimacy of the circle can be discomforting, intimidating, even threatening. In a circle we become vulnerable; we are forced into an encounter, to see and be seen. Frontal presentation is so much safer! I can hide or find solitary space. I can sit up front and see nobody and be distracted by nobody, or sit in the back of the class and be safe from the action.
When we settle for frontal presentation, the best we can be is accommodating. But do we want to settle on being accommodating? Is it enough to make room or create space for someone, even if that space is usually on the corner or at the outskirts where it is convenient, or in the back, at the front or on the side? Most of us find security and comfort in the cushy rows of seats in our sanctuary. If we choose to sit among others, we are surrounded by familiar faces and voices. But those in wheelchairs or with walkers, the elderly and those with other disabilities have to settle for the seats on the fringes and off to the sides. It is difficult for many to slide into the pews and surround themselves by others.
We can learn an important lesson from our mishkan, our portable wilderness sanctuary, which occupied the center of the Israelite camp. The tribes encircled the holy space, directing their energy to the holy center. Situated side by side, no tribe was further away than any other from the sacred space.
Please don’t get me wrong; I love our sanctuary and generally feel that it is a welcoming space. But I have realized during this month of “awareness and inclusion” that we have work to do in consciously creating circles of inclusion. It isn’t indifference that brings us to allow others to settle on the fringes of our space. Part of it is the way we have traditionally created space for prayer, part of it is practicality, and part of it is a lack of awareness. But part of it is also our fear of circles: the fear of facing our own insecurities, our own shortcomings, our own inability to face the other.
Can we welcome one another to the circle? Are we prepared to step in, to hold a hand and to be held, to look upon another and be seen? If we are to achieve true inclusivity in our community and in our personal spaces, we need to create more circles—and open them wide.
If you haven’t been following our “Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month” stories, please check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/OrangetownJewishCenter. You will find a series of inspiring “spotlights” featuring members of our community whose stories will touch you and make you think about the things we tend to take for granted. We thank them for their willingness to be part of our circle!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This past Sunday night, our OJC community and friends celebrated our community. Yes, Rabbi Paula Drill was the honoree for the evening, but—sorry—the night was only in part about her. It was a love-fest that spanned the generations: a night of Jewish learning, music, food and appreciation of one another. The night was about our community: our heart, our simplicity, our humility, our relationships, our Torah, our mission and our vision.
In trying to summarize our community’s success, I realize that we have not relied upon any new strategies. We haven’t created any unique ways of doing business; nor have we abandoned our commitment to traditional models of Jewish life. It is the Jewish values exhibited in the building of the Mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary), described in this week’s Torah portion, that serve as the blueprint for our own community.
The very idea that the people can participate in a process that will invite God’s presence is enough to inspire participation. Perhaps there is an element of guilt or a desire for repentance in their motivation, but after the debacle of the Golden Calf, the Israelites have a chance to merit a legacy. And the project is as much about the process as it is about the ultimate edifice that is constructed. The freewill service to a higher calling adds meaning and the sense of God’s presence to a life that is otherwise enslaved to fear and uncertainty.
God instructs Moses to engage the community by inviting them to donate to the project whatever they are moved to share. Several opportunities are created for that giving by virtue of the many types of materials being collected and utilized in the project. Engagement is transformed into empowerment as each individual becomes a participant in the processes of manufacturing, design and construction.
The appointment of Betzalel as project manager, the inclusion of artisans, and the participation of the broader community creates a new dynamic for the Israelites’ engagement with the Divine One. Before this change, leadership was purely hierarchical, and the population was steps removed in relation to God. As a result of the new appointee, the community operates in partnership with its leadership. In partnerships, the success of one is the success of all. Relationships deepen between the volunteers who recognize that they are working together towards a shared vision; relationships also deepen between the volunteers and the leadership, who now recognize the value of the other’s contributions towards a shared goal.
Finally, there is the matter of expectations and of how we define our success. Success can’t be about the number of people who participate or about the amounts they contribute. Success is found in the knowledge that the process of building—serving, empowering, partnering and relating—is an ongoing effort.
On Sunday night, we celebrated a milestone for a community in process. God said, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” As we continue the process of building a world deserving of God’s presence, may we continue to merit God’s presence among us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff