“The synagogue is communal property. It serves as a magnet which draws the Jew to their people and their religion and unites the Jewish people into one nation. No regular synagogue-goer need be lonely or forlorn, for there he or she will find friends and well-wishers. If one is on occasion absent, their absence will be noted and inquiries made about it. Should they be sick, the members of their synagogue will visit them to help their recovery”.
My great-grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Kon, penned the above words in 1964, a few decades after fleeing Nazi persecution. In his book Siach Tefillah, of which the above is a short extract, he beautifully explores the practical, emotional and spiritual role of the synagogue in Jewish life. His account has a personal feel and I wonder to what extent his vision of this institution reflected his experience of the shul he served back in Stettin, Germany, from 1924 to 1938. If he was not speaking of his time there, then perhaps he was recalling the warm welcome he had received from the synagogues of Hackney upon his and his family’s arrival to the UK at the start of the war.
Whilst the institution of the synagogue is quite different from that of the Temple and its predecessor the Tabernacle, it is wholly appropriate to draw some analogies. As Rabbi Kon suggests, “the synagogue was communal property;” this is also true of the Israelites’ portable dwelling place of God. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, informs us that the Mishkan was constructed entirely out of voluntary donations from the Israelite community. Whilst these donations were encouraged they were not mandatory and all Israelites, irrelevant of a contribution (or the size of their contribution) were welcome to benefit from the Mishkan. Though the decadent and opulent design of the Tabernacle – with its gold, silver and fine linens – may make some of us feel uncomfortable; it is the communal function of this structure which is worthy of emphasising. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The Mishkan, whilst administered by the priests, was a space of spirituality for all the people of Israel!
Many Jewish communities begin their t’filah (prayer) services by reciting the Mah Tovu. The opening words, originally recited by Balaam the Seer, have us declare, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your homes, O Israel!” In the context of our liturgy, these words have us express our gratitude for the physical spaces in which we are able to gather together. In this sense, we acknowledge that together we are stronger than the sum of our parts.
Since March 2020, Covid-19 has meant that the majority of Liberal and Reform Synagogues in the UK have had to close their doors to those seeking a physical space to gather and pray. Almost all these synagogues now offer virtual, online services to their communities. How are we to relate to the Mah Tovu when we no longer have synagogues in which to congregate; not out of persecution but a voluntary sacrifice for the sake of self-preservation? Indeed, what are we to do with lengthy biblical descriptions of the Mishkan in a world where even communal buildings are prohibited to us?
I think it is important to acknowledge the immense mental strain that Covid-19 has brought upon us. In addition to concerns over our physical health we are being forced to reconsider the very nature of communal Jewish practice. Whilst it is true that many engage with their synagogue outside the realm of traditional worship, the physical coming together has always been at the heart of Jewish life.
Though I yearn for a physical return to synagogue, I have found some solace in the amazing plethora of virtual services and online provisions being provided in our communities. In addition, the number of volunteers ensuring that Jewish communal life continues and that members of our communities (and those beyond them) are cared for is truly inspiring.
My great-grandfather observed that, “under certain circumstances the sanctity of the synagogue was revoked, by selling it, and it could then be used for other purposes”. This is not uncommon, and can happen when members of a Jewish community migrate to new areas of a town or to a different city altogether. Rabbi Kon concludes with the following powerful thought, “This underlines the difference in sanctity between the Temple [or Mishkan] and a synagogue, for the latter belongs to everyone”. Whilst we lack the ability to access our shuls we can take some comfort in knowing that a community is much more than bricks and mortar; it is each of us, the people who imbue it with meaning and the many connections linking us together despite the distances that divide us. That meaningful connection is something that existed prior to the COVID crisis and which will, I am sure, last far longer than this terrible pandemic.
David-Yehuda Stern LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.