Writing this commentary, I experimented with a different template and layout for the email version. My previous template was pretty basic; this one requires more navigation through different designs and layouts. It also requires some deviation and experimentation, meaning that it will take a little more time for trial and error. Only when I complete the column and email it to you, will I have a better idea about its effectiveness. Ultimately, however, the success of any column depends on its contents, as well as on the response from the readers. No matter how plain or ornate the design, it is the message which matters. As with any column, some are more effective and inspiring than others. The goal is to write thoughts which not only have meaning, but which motivate people to think about the subject – whether they agree with the writer or not.
I would apply the same thinking to the subject in this week’s portion of Terumah. The Torah introduces the Mishkan. The Mishkan was a portable sanctuary, a precursor to the future Temple in Jerusalem and to all future synagogues established around the world. In the desert, it certainly would have been easier to build a modest structure, something akin to what today would be a plain, large room filled with chairs. Yet the Mishkan required both lots of time and lots of effort. It was to represent a place of physical beauty; a central gathering spot for the community to pray, socialize and study. It was to be a template for sanctuaries to follow, sanctuaries which would reflect different designs, layouts and the vision of its builders. Yet, no matter how ornate or simple the sanctuary, ultimately the success of any sanctuary depends on the people who enter inside. What best characterized the desert sanctuary/Mishkan was the level of volunteerism. Everyone contributed some valuable material or object, which served either as a foundation item or as a decoration. Maybe the desert Jews had an advantage as the Mishkan constituted the first, genuine synagogue in Jewish history. Aside from being commanded to build the Mishkan by their newly-discovered God, the people felt a sense of elation in having a structure which served their spiritual and cultural needs.
Today’s sanctuaries face formidable challenges. Except for those in newly-established Jewish communities, our sanctuaries are often considered old, tired and reflective of a lifestyle no longer appealing to a majority of American Jews. In addition, they often remain status quo from generation to generation, incapable of changing according to the pace of change in our contemporary thinking and living. Like changing templates in a computer program, we are sometimes too weary, too busy or too unmotivated to make the time and effort to upgrade. Often, the status of a synagogue is subject to the politics of its leaders (Lay and professional), a reality which – justifiable or not – often discourages newer generations from affiliation. Although clergy and lay leaders can make egregious mistakes, they are occasionally held to unrealistic standards and thereby become an excuse for not affiliating. I am the first to suggest that as an institution, the synagogue needs a serious spiritual and cultural face lift. Our expectations in all areas of synagogue life need serious transformation, mainly because our lives have so drastically changed over the past two decades.
That being said, I still maintain that much of the onus for strengthening our sanctuaries rests on the shoulders of the community – no different from that first Mishkan. The desert Jews stepped forward not only to beautify their sanctuary, but to make it a makom kadosh – a holy place. Without the spirit of a willing b’nai yisrael, no amount of crimson yarn, olive oil (for lighting), pure gold, special furniture or Tabernacle curtains would turn an empty structure into a spiritual home. In the greater Jewish community today, we do not require crimson, gold or elegant furniture. Instead, we need volunteers to help design a prayer service that appeals to a new generation. We need visionaries to help redesign an education program that is more hands-on, proactive, and family-oriented. We need a new generation of leaders who maintain a reverence and respect for tradition, while infusing that tradition with fresh and bold ideas.
The sanctuaries we will hopefully build need not defy the past. Rather, even with their innovations, our sanctuaries can honor the past and establish themselves as part of the glorious continuum of which we are an integral part. The responsibility for our future depends not on the structure of a building nor on the shoulders of a few dedicated leaders. Our contemporary sanctuaries – wherever they stand – will succeed only if a passionate am yisrael will re-commit to the ideals of that original desert Mishkan. No excuses will suffice.