When I had the opportunity to travel and noticed construction going on, sometimes it’s hard to tell: is the building going up or is it coming down? Are the workers involved in construction or destruction?
The same is true with a Synagogue or Temple. After observing and participating in synagogue life as a professional for almost 30 years, it is not always clear if we are building an institution or vainly trying to avoid disaster. Synagogues are complex institutions, run by imperfect people, who try their best but often face great odds. It seems that almost every congregation is on the verge of financial ruin and has a leaky roof. We are constantly counting our members anxiously, or we are counting the number of people who show up at a worship service or program. There is never enough money, programs or people.
This is true not only of synagogues but almost all institutions. Historian Richard Langworth famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Watching the members of congress bicker; watching them get challenged for their behaviors, leaves us wondering whether the American way of life is under construction or destruction!
Over the last several weeks we have been reading about the Mishkan, Israel’s place of worship in the wilderness. Some of the commentators suggest that the Mishkan was meant to replace Mount Sinai as a place to which the people could turn to experience God’s presence during their travels in the wilderness. Others suggest that after the incident of the Golden Calf, the tabernacle would serve as a concrete representation of God for a people who needed something to fill this empty space in their life. Either way, the building of the tabernacle was the first attempt at institution building by Israel as a nation.
Learning from my colleague, Rabbi Mark Greenspan of the Oceanside Jewish Center in New York, there are perhaps five lessons we can learn from the building of the Mishkan that apply to the building of a synagogue or any institution for that matter.
1) Every institution must have three things: a vision, a purpose and a plan. Fifteen chapters are devoted to the building of the Mishkan in the Torah. Israel is told to build the Mishkan, what they need to build it, how to build, and how to collect the funds to do it. Then the Torah tells us we how they actually went about building it and then the Torah tells us that they built it, reviewing every detail in the process. Only 34 verses are devoted to the story of creation; 200 verses are devoted to the Mishkan. In other words, to build an institution first you must have a vision built on a purpose, and then you must have a plan. It won’t happen by itself. SO LET ME PUT THIS SIMPLY: keeping the doors of a synagogue open is not its purpose. We need to ask ourselves – why do we need a synagogue? Why should people come in in the first place?
2) Building is a choice, not an obligation. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that the people are obligated to build the tabernacle. In fact, the people are invited and not commanded to contribute to the building. Everyone who chooses to give should do so, gives kol nediv libo, according to the generosity of one’s heart. Similarly, no one is religiously obligated to build a synagogue or maintain it, or even participate in it. We are obligated to keep Shabbat, give tzedakah, and to teach our children – but the Torah does not say “Thou shalt pay dues to a synagogue.” That is a choice. And if it is a choice then we must convince people that it is worth their time and resources to do so. Synagogues must sell themselves and stop assuming people will come here because it is their “obligation.”
3) We all have something to contribute. In building the tabernacle, the people were invited to contribute not only their resources but their talents. Though there were assigned leaders, everyone was invited to participate. Some people could weave, others were metal workers, and still others were tanners. How often do synagogue members stop to ask – what unique gift do I have to bring to my community? What do I love to do – and how could my talent or gift serve the community?
4) Synagogues should be built on flexibility and change. The beauty of the Mishkan was that it could be packed up and moved from place to place. Brick and mortar hamper the ability of a community to change with the times. Everyone wants to continue to sit in the same seat they sat in on the High Holy Days thirty years ago. We love our sacred building, but synagogues are not buildings; they are communities built on people coming together with a common agenda.
5) Synagogues, like all institutions, must be built on integrity and honesty. That is the point of this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 –40:38). After building the tabernacle, Moses reviews every single penny used in this project. No matter that he is Moses, the great leader of Israel. There must be transparency and honesty in the maintenance of institutions. No one is above the law, and everyone is accountable. When we stop holding our leaders to the highest standards of honesty, our institutions fall apart – that goes for synagogues and for governments.
To paraphrase Mr. Langworth, “Synagogues are the worst religious institution, except for all those others that have been tried.” Most of us know why we are here, and we sometimes have a hard time understanding why others don’t appreciate what a precious gift a synagogue can be. But there is nothing obvious about this. We need to be more mindful about what it means to belong here, and we need to educate others – that is the only way the synagogues of the future will be built. So, I ask you – is our synagogue under construction or destruction? That depends on each and every one of us!