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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2007/5768

Architects of Our Future

The analogy had never occurred to me before. Yet, when Rabbi Harold Kushner of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame first offered it, I thought I had one of my Yom Kippur sermons. For what if you could have the opportunity to turn history back, to live an hour of your lives all over again? It happens every year; this year it will occur on November 4. We will live from 1 am to 2 am and then, just as the clock strikes 2, we will get to live again from 1 am to 2 am.

The analogy, of course, is to Yom Kippur, that day when, as we virtually die, each of us is reborn, inscribed again in the Book of Life, changed from the person who died into the person God and each of us have always wanted to be. We get to live again. I know, it is a virtual reality; we do not enter a literal time machine. But Rabbi Kushner quotes Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, for years the dean of modern Orthodox Judaism, to explain how we Jews use the future to change the past. It is not the past which shapes the present which then shapes the future. It is, rather, the future which determines the present and defines the meaning of the past. Was something a tragedy or was it a spur to growth? Was something a mistake or was it a learning experience? We cannot answer those questions solely by examining what happened. We can only understand yesterday in the light of what we choose to do today and tomorrow. By shaping our future, we go back and define the past. In that way are we shaped today not by our memories of yesterday but by our visions of tomorrow. Rabbi Kushner then summed up Rav Soloveitchik with these words, “You are not a prisoner of your past; you are an architect of your future.”

With those words, our future shaped my present—and my Yom Kippur sermon was transformed into Rosh Hashanah’s. For, as you have heard from both our new president, Herzl Spiro, and our immediate past president, Sandra Kohler Stern, our congregation will be going forward to build our new spiritual home. And, yes, we all have the opportunity to be the architects of our future.

We already know that our future will be different from our past. We surely know that we cannot and will not recreate our Kenwood sanctuary here in this spot. That was an urban synagogue built in the still remaining image of classic Reform Judaism. The building reflected great distance, a remnant of our German origins—distance between God and the people, between the clergy and the congregation, between mind and spirit, with everything in its proper place. Majestic and beautiful as it was, it was built to engender awe, not warmth and intimacy and community. We also know that we cannot and will not recreate our wonderful Kenwood school building here in this spot. That building reflected what much of post-World War II synagogue life was devoted to—the education of the Baby Boomers. In fact, in the 1960s, as many congregations moved into the suburbs, facilities were built with small sanctuaries surrounded by huge school wings and more than enough asphalt to handle carpools. We became pediatric congregations, even if many of our own kids wandered in the back door and then out the front to, ah, learn Judaism at Riegelman’s. And then we slapped on all kinds of programs. Synagogues became first a religious school for kids with numerous programs and then a place to pray with a rabbi on call.

But what of a synagogue, an American synagogue, for the 21st century—that’s what we are going to be the architects of. What will be central to us—that majestic and awe-inspiring sanctuary? Those many classrooms? More programs? Or something else? Remember, religion remains central to American life; in many places, particularly in the mega-churches and the emergent churches, religion holds a dominant role in American life. We also know that Americans desperately seek community albeit no longer in old ethnic neighborhoods or through fraternal organizations such as the International Order of Odd Fellows or the Masons. And we also know that Americans tend to be informal—in dress, in address, in speech. Six years ago, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York and, along with Ron Wolfson, co-founder and director of Synagogue 2000 (now Synagogue 3000), joined us as our Rabbi Dudley Weinberg Memorial Scholar-in-Residence to help us begin to see our future. He talked of synagogue as a sacred community in which everything—relationships, agenda, debate, activities, organizational governance, and physical space—would be “swept along by the recognition of God’s reality. The entire purpose of synagogue life would be to fashion an institution where God clearly dwells.” For we “need synagogues where learning runs deep, worship engages, welcome and care are everywhere, and members are galvanized for doing good deeds. All who enter synagogues should immediately get the message that they are made in the image of God.” Thus, we need to envision a building that facilitates these sacred relationships and these sacred acts—between people and between people and God.

Our best guides remain Rabbi Hoffman and Dr. Wolfson. Each has a book to help us on our way, with Rabbi Hoffman’s entitled Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life and Dr. Wolfson’s entitled The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community. Let me use them as I begin to dream with you. And let me do so in the historic framework of the synagogue’s three basic activities—that of a beit tefillah, a house of prayer; that of a beit midrash, a house of study; and that of a beit knesset, a house of gathering.

We have already begun to see our future in our worship. Our worship has become participatory and joyous, with music–thanks to the guidance of our cantor—central to the entire worship experience, with music that encourages us to sing, moving us closer to each other and thereby to God. The music guides our entire service, not only at Torahpalooza, but at every worship experience. Those who designed our current chapel on our Zilber Campus surely understood how sacred space needs to be arranged. One must be able to look at and acknowledge the presence of others. Fixed seats gave way to flexible seating, spectators to participants. The low design of the bimah, with the ability to place the amud, the stand which the cantor and I share, in the midst of the chairs, extends the liturgical action into the congregation. The warmth and intimacy of that chapel, of that sacred space, with its lighting and its windows, helps to build sacred community. These aspects, of course, will continue in our new building.

You have already made another decision about our spiritual home. For when we build, we will be reorienting our sanctuary so that, when we pray, we will be facing east. Even in Wisconsin, we do not face Lambeau Field when we pray, we face Jerusalem. Our cornerstone will be of Jerusalem stone. That places us back home as we think always of the future, “next year in Jerusalem.” And we already know how vital a good sound system is. You need to hear us—and you need to hear each other—as our songs carry our words of prayer to God. For the music must become yours, not ours, to work. Yet more. For we wish to involve all those who want to be part of our community. Such is why we have created a children’s area in the back of our current chapel. With soft Shabbat toys and appropriate books at little tables, we hope to keep families united during worship. Why should children get the message that services always mean being separated from parents and grandparents? Yet, at the same time, that small children’s area is at the back of the chapel where, if noise levels are disruptive, families can make a quick exit. Such is also why I have long spoken about one of the most successful features of the mega-churches and emergent churches, that of a crying or quiet room. Adjacent to the sanctuary with glass walls or windows opening onto the sanctuary and sound piped directly in, parents can still hear the service while children make noise.

Further, the needs of a diverse congregation also call for flexible worship space with the ability to hold concurrent services. Think about a youth service and a regular service taking place at the same time; similarly, consider a service of meditation and a service completely in song paralleling each other but both finishing together so that diner may be shared. And, perhaps most important of all, we should finally embrace the pastoral setting of our building. We should be able to pray under the canopy of the heavens in a setting which allows a proper appreciation of the beauty of the world around us. Such an outdoor chapel would include proper seating and sound, adequate lighting and pathways, shade from the sun and, if at all possible, protection from the mosquitoes.

We have already begun to see our future in our learning. We understand that Jewish learning begins at birth and ends at death. So our educational program is also in transformation as we move from the supplemental school model to life-long learning, from dropping off the kids to a community of learners. We begin in pregnancy with, as I have noted before, a program called Lamazel, and we continue with a person and with a family on several different tracks. And perhaps the central location for such learning becomes what we once here called a library. You see, Jewish study and learning is never done alone and in silence. Jewish learning also builds community. For what else is Jewish study but dialogue first and then a conversation across the generations. True Jewish study is done in hevruta, in partnership with another, with one who becomes a teacher, a colleague, a friend. One sits across from the other and reads a Jewish text like a verse from Torah or a Mishna. Reading aloud opens the door to first interpretations. Then translating the text into English yet more. So the discussion has already begun. Different English words can be utilized to translate the Hebrew text. Thus, one might have to check to see what Rashi, the medieval Biblical commentator, had to say about a specific word. In time, other Biblical commentators like Ibn Ezra and Nachmanidies and Maimonides might join the conversation. Thus, enter a true bet midrash, a true bes medrish, a true Jewish study hall, if you will, and you will enter a room filled with the buzz of a variety of conversations, of pages being quickly turned, of people arguing with each other, of previous generations brought back to life to join in the conversation. And those pages can come alive in a variety of ways with a variety of technologies. The suggestion that we consider creating a beit midrash with the resources of our library came from our new president. And the bet midrash would provide us with yet another worship space. Just as a traditional bet midrash can also serve for prayer, we build in a way that our library, now our bet midrash, is also our chapel.

Finally, as our Director of Life-long learning, Amy Kazilsky, will tell you, we make sure that there are windows on all the doors into all our rooms. The windows provide an openness, an invitation to others to join in. Solid wood doors close people off from each other and clearly say, “Do not enter.”

We have already begun to see our future as we gather, not for prayer or for learning, but simply for company and companionship. Our Brotherhood’s Bagel Noshes every other Sunday morning encourage people, especially parents in our religious school, to come in and share a cup of joe and conversation with others instead of just dropping the kids off. It is a lesson taught first by another Jew, a fellow by the name of Howard Schultz who founded a small enterprise called Starbucks. As Dr. Wolfson notes, as Howard Schultz himself notes, Starbucks is not in the coffee business, it is in the community business. How much the more so should we be, for a synagogue is a spiritual community. Encourage Brotherhood to continue these Bagel Noshes but, like Starbucks, create a room with comfortable chairs and couches and tables that encourage people to truly schmooze on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday afternoon. Use a cute name—Wolfson liked Java Nagila and Mi Ka-mocha. Still, as Brotherhood also understands, do not limit that community to that one space. Set up the room, no, set up the entire building, for wireless access—just like Starbucks—so that Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun becomes the place to hang-out. In fact, if you stop by this Sunday for Brotherhood’s Bagel Nosh, you will find that Robert Jacobs has done exactly that for our current building.

As we build, we should also consider other ways to ensure our synagogue truly becomes a bet knesset, a house of gathering. We begin in the parking lot, with several places set aside for first-time visitors. The welcome continues as people enter with a lobby wherein we, staff and volunteers, can greet our guests during the week. We do so by clustering our offices together and placing that office cluster behind an open window into our lobby area. We not only give the message immediately that our members and guests are welcome; we also provide the most important line of security in any building—someone saying, “Hi, how can I help you?” Clustered offices also provide a crucial message—we are not a hierarchical system; rather, we are a team. It is the same symbolic message the cantor and I try to communicate when we lead services back on our Zilber campus. We stand together at the same amud, at the same lectern; usually he sings and I read and talk but sometimes I sing and he reads and talks. Most often, we harmonize.

Just as we are blessed with a magnificent library collection, so, too, are we blessed with a wonderful art collection and museum. To Annette Hirsh and Audrienne Eder, who have watched over it during these years, our deepest thanks. With their help and guidance, we should consider what goes up on our walls and into our display cases. Just as in our own homes, what we put up and out says something about who we are and who we want to become. And when we put pictures up of ourselves, we have to remember that not every Jew looks like me, male, sort of Ashkenazi, definitely white. Not only men wear talleisim—and Jews can be black or white, Hispanic or Asian, gay or straight. If we are a welcoming community, we need to reflect that in all we do.

As we build, we need also consider incorporating appropriate technology. Now, so challenged as I am by technology, I may not be the best proponent. But I surely understand the centrality of technology among those younger than I. Blackboards in classrooms are no longer sufficient. Take these words from Rick Recht, one of the top Jewish singers out there today, “…most things in synagogues are mediocre: bad lighting, messy rooms, poor acoustics, just a sense of things being shabby. My generation is used to the best. We look for excellence, and can usually find it, somewhere. Synagogues have to compete by being more than mediocre.” I still marvel at our Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service of two years ago at our neighboring church. They projected all the words of the service and all of the melodies onto the wall in a kind of power point and video presentation, freeing participants from looking for and leaders from calling out pages. Such is hard for me to suggest—we are the people of the book. But I am quite conscious of how technology is changing the ways we communicate and the ways we build community. And the use of that technology needs to carry over onto our web site and into the use of blogs and podcasts and the streaming of our cantor’s music. With that, my list has just begun.

So many others have now begun to see our future as we prepare to build. Stacey Kohl is ably leading our building committee with the wonderful guidance and counsel of architect Philip Katz. Of course, money and space and laws may well limit what we hope to do. We surely will not be able to do everything that each of us envisions. Yet now is the time to share our excitement, our hopes, our dreams. And, to quote Rabbi Hoffman’s son, Joel, “If we always think the way we always thought, we’ll always get what we always got.” Last year, we were blessed in our celebration of our 150 years as a congregation; we are now the architects of our next 150. As we begin this new year, the first of our next 150, let us rejoice.

Ken yehi ratzon

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784