by Rabbi Adam Roffman
March 21, 2020
Not many people know this about Shira, but long before she decided to enter the rabbinate, she wanted to be in a different kind of synagogue business—the synagogue design business. Combining her geeky love of math and science with her fondness for the sacred spaces of her youth at Congregration Kol Ami in Tampa (which her father helped renovate, by the way), Shira imagined that becoming a synagogue architect would be the perfect way to harness her strengths while also giving back to the Jewish community that had brought her so much joy.
It’s no surprise then that the design of this beautiful sanctuary was a real draw for us when we went searching for positions out of Rabbinical school. The beautiful light, the magnificent aron kodesh, and the warmth of a room designed for an intimate kind of sanctity—these elements all combined to move us quite profoundly when we first visited—as they have for many others in our community and beyond.
It’s been a bedrock principle of our faith, since Sinai, that an exquisitely designed space, built with the resources and talents of the Jewish people, was the vehicle for bringing a little bit of the heavens down to earth. That if we get the design just right—if we find the perfect materials and arrange them with precision, kevod Adonai, the glory of God, will reveal itself in our midst. That’s why we spend so much time, in this’s parasha and at the end of the book of Exodus. reflecting on the nature of that space.
And yet, here we are, on Shabbat morning, a dozen or so people gathered together in this gorgeous room so that, at least in part, a much larger number of participants can watch this service on a computer screen in their homes.
How could we have ever anticipated, when this sanctuary was dedicated 13 years ago, that, one day, it wouldn’t be the skyward facing windows, but a discreetly placed camera, mounted to the back wall, that would serve as the most indispensable part of this sacred transmitter, beaming God’s presence into our lives and into our souls?
I’ve spent a lot of time this week, watching God’s glory being beamed back and forth across the Jewish world. I’m proud to say that my colleagues and I have done our fair share of beaming ourselves, just here in Dallas.
Just one week ago, the thoughtfully designed sanctuaries at shuls across the country became temporarily obsolete overnight. The plans we had made for filling them and energizing them with spirited davening and inspirational Torah were suspended and we were all left to wonder—what now?
The answer came rather quickly. Overnight, rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and lay leaders became experts at Zoom, Facebook and YouTube Live. Curricula for Jewish day schools, religious schools, even early childhood centers, were adapted for distance learning. Religious ritual was reimagined, in some cases, quite radically, so that prayer could continue, mourners could say Kaddish, and lifecycle moments could be celebrated.
And that was only on the local level. National organizations have been stepping up, as well. Camp Ramah, the movement’s wonderful network of summer camps sent out a notice two days ago, that Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, a talented and popular young songwriter would be holding an impromptu Facebook live concert in his living room. Now, the Indigo Girls got more than 30,000 folks to tune in earlier in the day on Thursday, but Josh got a pretty impressive number later that evening to join him in song as well—more than 1500 screens, each with several people watching, no doubt. On the comments section, I could see friends of mine from New York to Baltimore to Chicago to California who had tuned in and were putting in their requests and expressing their gratitude.
The result of these efforts has been nothing short of inspiring.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the creativity borne out of the uncertainly and fear of this past week has been one of the most impressive feats the American Jewish community has pulled off in quite some time.
And part of what’s been so extraordinary to watch and to experience is that what has emerged from all of this has been not a decrease, but an increase in engagement and connection.
Our Friday night service from last week has been viewed more than 1000 times on Facebook. The “attendance” at our virtual minyan is nearly double what it had been when we were meeting in the chapel. The classes that we have moved online are even more well attended than the ones held in our beit midrash.
Yes, there is a real need for connection, for the comfort of community, and the wisdom to get us through this difficult time. But there is also no denying the fact that our Jewish communities have responded to this crisis in ways that have brought out the best in us.
I want to share just one of these moments from the past week. We lost two members of our community over the weekend—two beautiful neshamot, Sydel Rudner and Bob Brenner. And our concern for their families’ care, for the mitzvah of nichum avelim, of comforting the mourner, was magnified by the fact that they couldn’t be physically present with us for shiva.
And yet, when Avi conducted the virtual minyan, which the families attended, he reminded everyone that our custom was to conclude the service with our traditional words of consolation, “May God comfort you along with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” and then he purposely left the video chat open so that those who were also participating could express their condolences with their own words. One by one, our virtual minyanaires shared the most beautiful and heartfelt words of comfort, words so touching that tears instantly began to roll down my cheeks.
Now, usually, when we gather in person and conclude our services with these words, we say “thanks everyone for being here” and folks usually approach the mourners to greet them, but because we were on a computer conference, and people couldn’t talk over each other and be heard, each individual was given the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of nichum aveilum in full volume, so that everyone could hear.
This was not the plan. This was not the way we drew up shiva minyanim on the blueprints. In fact, it took a surprisingly bold and swift move by the CJLS, the Conservative movement’s law committee, to sanction the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish without the physical presence of a minyan—a decision that fundamentally changed one the most ancient ritual standards we have. And yet, bending the rules for the sake of an emergency allowed us to comfort these two families in ways that, I pray, are as soul nourishing as they can be in this time of social distancing.
So yes, we sit here in this amazingly beautiful, nearly empty sanctuary, not spiritually depleted, not missing the presence of God, but full of it, knowing that even if the physical sanctuary we have built is not accessible to everyone, the virtual sanctuary we erected, nearly overnight, is serving us quite well for the time being.
When Moses called the people together to begin the construction of the original sacred space, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness of Sinai, he gave them detailed instructions for its design. And all those among the people, whose hearts moved them, brought forward gifts of silver and gold, fine linens of blue and purple and crimson, spices for incense and oil for kindling. But the most important instruction Moses gave them was not what to build—but the intention, the spirit of the builders.
וְכָל־חֲכַם־לֵ֖ב בָּכֶ֑ם יָבֹ֣אוּ וְיַעֲשׂ֔וּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖ה ה׃
Let all who are chachem lev—who are wise-hearted--come and do everything that God has commanded.
Yes, the design of what we build matters. But earthly materials, no matter how precious, can only become sacred conductors of divinity when they are arranged and, when necessary, rearranged with wisdom. They can only become sacred emitters of the contents of our souls, when they are activated by the love we hold in our hearts for each other, for the Jewish people, and for God.
This past week has been a difficult one. We have seen the number of cases of coronavirus rise sharply in our country and in many countries throughout the world, and we have also seen the terrible consequences that rise will bring in its wake. We know that we have not yet reached the peak of this pandemic, nor do we know whether that peak will be the height of this crisis, or just one in a series of mountains that we will have to climb together.
We do not know when we will all be able to return to work, to school, or, to the beautiful spiritual home we have constructed thanks to the tremendous heart of this generous community.
But what we do know, and what we have seen this week, is that when Jews set their hearts and minds to creating the sacred spaces that will keep us together in faith, in relationship with each other and with God, a beautiful design always emerges.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share