If You Build It, They Will Not Come
(With thanks to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Big Tent Judaism for their inspiration and leadership in opening and broadening our tent.)
American Jews have built majestic cathedrals. And we have had good reason to do so. It's not just that we wanted to emulate the beautiful churches and chapels of our Christian neighbors. Jews have a long history of creating sacred spaces.
The story of the Jewish encounter with holiness begins in the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis, “HASHEM said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) Abram followed God’s command leading him to Canaan as far as Shechem. God appeared to Abram and promised the land upon which he was standing to his offspring. Abram then marked that sacred site – not with words or a moment of silence, but by building an altar – a holy space through which Abram could offer his thanks for God’s kindness and presence in his life. In fact, each of our forefathers built similar special markers of sacred experiences.
Later in the Bible we graduate from simple altars and markers to Tabernacles and Temples. Each of these spaces was seen as a Makom - a holy space, in which God or God’s Presence could be felt and experienced. Only later, with the destruction of the second Temple, did we fully come to realize that we did not need specific holy places to experience God’s Presence. It wasn’t God’s Presence that made a space holy - it was a meeting of God’s Presence and our presence and that could happen anywhere. (You can read more about sacred space in my forthcoming book: The Search for the Sacred, out later this summer.)
And yet, the American Jewish community has spent millions and millions of dollars building holy spaces in the form of temples and synagogues. These sanctuaries have been home to magnificent and spiritual moments of prayer and connection. They have also left us with a terrible dilemma.
For some, myself included, a sanctuary is a safe and holy space. Still for many others, the idea of even walking into a synagogue or temple is fraught with fear. Questions haunt us: What if I do something wrong? What if I sit in someone else's seat? How will I know when to sit or stand? What if someone calls me up to the bima? Worse still, many Jews have decided that real Judaism can only happen in a synagogue even if they themselves can't work up the courage to step inside.
Jewish educators have been teaching for decades that Judaism starts and ends in the home. The entire point of family education was meant to empower families to take what they learn in the synagogue home. Today though, we face a different challenge. The vast majority of Jews today aren't in synagogue for the family education programs and therefore there is nothing for them to take home.
That's why Jewish education and Jewish experiences today cannot only emanate from the synagogue. These holy spaces that use to inspire and educate us are not meeting the needs of modern Jews. To teach these Jews we must take our learning and our celebrating into their homes, their clubs, their bookstores, their coffeeshops their supermarkets and their libraries. We need to follow in the footsteps of Chabad and take Judaism to the streets, parks and shopping malls.
“If you build it, they will come” just doesn't cut it anymore. If we want to create sacred spaces then we need to open our tents on all four sides and then, run out to greet all who pass by. The alternative is to sit alone in our tents… waiting.