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Building our Makom Kodesh (Holy Place)

10/08/2019 02:59:00 PM

Oct8

Rabbi Allison Berry

When my father sold my childhood home, I cried. Never mind that I hadn’t lived there in 10  years - there is something visceral and real about letting go of a place where so many memories were made. And my dad is just like me. Over 50 years later, he still dreams of the row house in Worcester where he grew up. I wonder how many of you dream of places from your childhood that had a “forever” kind of impact on your lives. 

When we announced plans to renovate Temple Shalom’s sanctuary, some of you cried. This, too, is a place filled with memories; it’s where our life’s stories unfold: where we celebrate B’nai Mitzvah, graduations and weddings. And where we welcome newborn babies and say goodbye to people we love. These moments are what sets this place apart from all others and makes it sacred.

“If God dwells anywhere,” my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman writes, “it is there: where sacred place and sacred story intersect with the emerging picture of our own lives.”[1] For many of us, our grandparents - who fled Russia, Spain and yes, Brooklyn - had the courage to reinvent their Judaism here. They built spaces - some very grand - and some quite simple - to house their commitment to Jewish practice, peoplehood and faith. It was their hope and dream that these edifices would feel contemporary and relevant far into the future. We live in their legacy. And in the same breath, we know that our story must continue to evolve and grow and change.

When the renovation of his church’s sacred space was complete, the late Rev. Dr. R.C. Sproul dedicated the new space saying:[2] “When we enter this building, we are moving across a threshold, making a transition from the common to the uncommon; from the ordinary to the extraordinary...There's no magic about a building, but if this place is set apart...then this place is holy ground. This place is uncommon...This place is sacred.”

Rev.Sproul’s ideas are actually rooted in Jewish thought and text.

I’ve learned from Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky[3] that, “...In the Torah, holy sites are portals that welcome God’s presence into the world and that allow humans to engage...God. They are places in which individuals not only recognize God’s presence, but also feel God’s presence. [Our] Patriarch Jacob may express this best.” At the lowest point in his life, Jacob is exiled from his parent’s house. He wanders for a time and lies down to rest with a rock for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder connecting heaven to earth.

Waking from this dream, Jacob declares:

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃

“Surely God is in this MAKOM - this place - and I did not know.”[4]

Jacob realizes he has stumbled upon a portal connecting him to God. He takes the rock that was his pillow and uses it to consecrate the spot. He marks the Makom as holy; not knowing this was the exact place that Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac; not knowing this ground would later become the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem...And yet, he senses echoes of the Divine within that place.

Over the years, this sanctuary, much like Jacob’s mysterious Makom has also been a doorway to something uncommon. This space has allowed us to enter into moments that are both sacred and profound.

Here are two examples: Last winter at the adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah students’ first rehearsal, each of them stood on the bima and read from Torah for the first time in their lives.

Those of you who were part of this experience - I would love you to stand up. You remember that moment don’t you?

When we got to the last person, all of us cried. You had made it through this experience many of you never dreamed you would have. On the day of your B’nai Mitzvah service, every seat was filled, but it was that moment the week before, right where I’m standing, that I know I will always remember. [you can sit back down]

The day after the shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh we invited all of you here so we could be together. Everyone who was here that day - please stand up.

We expected 100 people, and hundreds of you came. We expected only members of our own community and our neighbors arrived to stand beside us, remember? At the end of the service, over 20 clergy from churches and synagogues and mosques joined us up here to sing, arms wrapped around each other. We needed to be in our sanctuary, our home for the soul, the place that cradled us as we faced one of the most difficult challenges of our time. [you can sit down]

Eight years ago, when we started to dream of renovating this sanctuary, it was clear that our community’s soul had outgrown its body[5]. In order to better understand how this happened and what was needed to move forward, our architect, David Seibert,[6] reminded me that it would be impossible to renew our space without first understanding its history. He wanted to hear about the people who shaped it; he wanted to know about every piece of art, every plaque and every piece of furniture.

So, we told him.

We told him about the families in 1955, who bought a small, Victorian home and chicken coop here at 175 Temple St., much to the chagrin of the neighbors. And, we told him about how our founders worked with Napoleon Setti to design these stained-glass windows[7]. We told David about the needlepoint tapestry on our ark doors, created by more than 30 women in this community. The tapestry now hangs proudly in the stairwell of the Temple’s lower entrance.

And we told him about this organ, gifted by Temple members, Buena Pearlman, and her husband Alan, who invented the synthesizer[8]. Tonight, when you look around our sanctuary, you’ll see the seats are new, the lighting is brighter (much brighter), and I’m still getting used to this reading table. Yet, no matter how the space has changed, our parents and grandparents are still here. They are not erased. They will continue to be part of our unfolding story.

We reimagined our makom kadosh - this holy space - in such a way that it would pay homage to our rich history, and the founders of this community. At the same time, we looked ahead and considered what our synagogue needed to be relevant not only tonight, but 20 years from now.
We decided to follow the teaching of American futurist, Avi Wallach and “be the ancestors the future needs.”[9]

How could we meet this challenge? What kind of sacred space would sustain us far into the future? Your questions guided us through the process:
Is this a place where I can ascend the bima if I’m in a wheelchair?
Is this a place where I will be welcome if I’m not a Jew?
Is this a place where I can experience the spirituality of Jewish prayer while using 21st century technology?

Is this a place where I can find God?
Is this a place where I can make a difference?


In thinking about your questions, I turned to words of Midrash Shemot Rabbah. This ancient text asks an eternal question of the Jewish people, “For how long must I travel without a home? The Torah answers: ‘make for Me a sanctuary’ so that I need not be on the outside.”[10]

We decided to be the ancestors who ensured anyone who wanted to could enter this space. That is why we built this ramp, so our Bima would be accessible to all. This evening, we celebrate that everyone in this synagogue can ascend to read from the Torah. Everyone.

For those of you unable to join us tonight in person, we are thrilled that for the first time you can be with us over livestream.

Our single-user restroom - also for everyone - means no one will need to declare their gender identity before using the loo.

And what’s that - oh yeah - all of you can hear me!! Our new sound system means no more screechy/scratchy noises during the sermon. You have no more excuses - you can’t fall asleep!

Our newly reimagined Sanctuary is not only accessible and flexible. It’s beautiful, deeply and authentically Jewish. Embedded even within the floors and walls are subtle reminders that this is holy ground. 

For example: There is new life in our entryway: 12 Jerusalem stone tiles along the sides of the room refer to the 12 diverse tribes of Israel. 5 tiles moving towards the sanctuary echo the 5 books of Moses - our Torah. And the single, glazed tile in the center of the foyer reminds us that there is always one God - present and forever, watching over us as we enter this space. All together - these tiles add up to 18 - or chai - life.

Last spring, aided by members of the Open Your Eye’s Fund, we launched a competition to find the best artists to design our ark doors. California stained glass designers Michelle and David Plachte-Zuieback won. David and Michelle named our doors Aliyah - the Hebrew term for “going up.”[11] The sweeping uplift of the glass behind me evokes that pivotal Jewish moment of Aliyah, going up to read from the Torah. These doors were designed to remind us that we too, are on a constant journey to travel ever upwards - to make Aliyah and to open a portal that moves us ever closer to God.

I invite all of you at some point this afternoon before or after services to walk around this space - take it all in and come view these doors up close. You will be able to see what I see - a Star of David, made of Jerusalem stone embedded in the floor of the ark.

This makom kadosh is ready.

“My prayer,” Rev. Sproul wrote to his church community, “is that not one of you will ever come into this building and walk out of here and say, ‘Surely God was in that place’…but I didn't know. I missed it.”[12]

Tonight, our prayers echo his. Every time you enter this space, I pray you will remember the place where Jacob (and you) found God.

I know that Bert Martinson looked for God when he came here. At 104, he was the oldest person I had ever met. He grew up in a world that was unrepentant in its anti-Semitism. Newton country clubs wouldn’t admit Jews. There was a Jewish quota at Harvard. I suspect Bert would have shown up at the immigration protests in Newton and even Boston this summer, because he knew the meaning of  “never again.”

Bert went to synagogue to give his children Hebrew names, to watch his sons become Bar Mitzvah and to serve for many years with exquisite menschlicheit as Temple Shalom’s executive director. And in September of 2017, this was the last place he came - before we laid him to rest.

Days before his death, I visited him. Bert made a point of asking if young families were joining the Temple. How many B’nai Mitzvah took place last year? How many baby namings? His eyes welled up with tears when I told him: the Temple is alive and well and thriving. Our sacred space is a home - filled with the voices of many generations - and we will continue to make it so.
Tonight, and every night going forward, let us claim our seats. Try different ones in this beautiful space until one fits. And if you cannot find it on your first try, tell us and we will help you. Find your place, your Makom here, for surely there is one waiting for you.

I can’t think of a more profound teaching this Yom Kippur than our own history and vision for the future. If Bert’s story, and the story of our loved ones and the story of this place teach us anything - it is to remember despite so many challenges in our imperfect world - we are resilient...and, we are strong.

Look around you - between our two Kol Nidre services over 1,500 of us are here. Like generations past, you make the choice to enter these doors. Together, we make this space uncommon. We make this place extraordinary.

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu, v’Mi Shebeirach Imoteinu - May the one who blessed our fathers and our mothers, bless this holy congregation. May this uncommon space be a Beit HaShalom - a place of wholeness, where we celebrate our bright future, a sanctuary for all who enter. If God dwells anywhere, it is here.[13]

 

[1] https://www.synagoguestudies.org/in-search-of-a-spiritual-home/

[4] Genesis 28:16

[5] Thank you Rabbi Karyn Kedar for sharing this beautiful idea and phrase with me!

[6] David Seibert and BKA Architects bio: http://www.bkaarchitects.com/#firm/leader/david-green/

[9] Avi Wallach’s work is focused on this topic. Link to his organization, “Long Path” and his Ted Talk about how to be better ancestors: https://www.longpath.org/

[10] Shemot Rabbah 33:3

[11]David and Michelle’s website: http://www.plachtezuieback.com/

[13] A huge thank you Michele Lowe for her extraordinary wisdom and edits!

Wed, November 13 2019 15 Cheshvan 5780