Creative Coexistence: A Strength-Based Perspective on Being Buildingless

Ora Wise
October 21, 2012
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My synagogue is in a church.

Well, really we operate between a church, a middle school, and one of those shared office buildings Brooklyn is now full of.

An exploration of the design of Jewish sacred spaces could not be more timely for me. This is the beginning of the school year, and I, being the director of the Children’s Learning Program at Kolot Chayeinu, a small, independent congregation in Brooklyn, find myself experiencing a certain amount of dread as we begin yet another year without our own building.

Educators in every context understand the importance of environment. Lesson plans that involve physical movement require space, the messages and images on the walls impact students’ perceptions of themselves and others, temperature impacts students’ energy and attention spans, color and sound can focus or distract, the furniture in a room designed for 4-year-olds is a different size than what fills a classroom of middle school students.  It is well understood that setting up a learning environment that is intentional, user-friendly, emotionally and physically safe, and accommodates multiple modes of learning is the most effective behavior management strategy because it will reduce the issues and needs that can lead to disruptive behavior in the first place.

During the beginning of the school year, I navigate the complex web of needs and constraints I am working with- permit application processes for schools we are hosted by, figuring out what programs can be placed in which building on which day, planning for storage of materials to be accessible while we’re moving from space to space, etc.  The experience of being a buildingless educator borrowing classrooms and packing and unpacking my bins of materials every week, aligns me with the struggle of public school teachers and students throughout the city fighting for space, time, and resources in a system that is basically being dismantled and left to rot.

Creative control over my own space is crucial for the ideal education program that I envision, however, our congregation’s situation is otherwise rather agreeable to me. It makes sense to me to be living in Brooklyn and sharing space with other communities and institutions. I, in fact, cannot imagine how different our congregation would be if we were camped out in our own building that we were in charge of without regular and necessary interactions with our neighbors. Communication, coexistence, solidarity, mutual aid are all built into our operations- they are crucial skills and values that we rely on to function as a congregation. As I said, this feels like a natural way to be a Jewish congregation in Brooklyn but when I think about how disconnected and self-oriented so many other Jewish communities I’ve encountered are, I can really appreciate the difference.

In her piece, “Creating Sacred Space”, Susie Coliver explores the question of how Torah scrolls could be housed in the sanctuary. While not being used, our Torah is wrapped in a thick bag and stored in a wooden closet in the basement of the church that is our home base. Although our Torah is tucked away when off-duty, the way we operate fits the model Coliver offers that is transparent, accessible, with the scrolls,or in our case the process of maintaining a Jewish congregation, always on display in full view. Our process requires people to get involved. Members help with or at least bare witness to all of the steps it takes to put a shabbat service or a holiday event together. Congregants volunteer to hang decorations, schlep chairs, clean up after a bar mitzvah tish, and the rabbi drives the Torah around in her little blue car if it is needed at a different location- the opposite of sequestered away in a fancy aron hakodesh.

Certainly as I look up at the crosses in the stained glass windows of the beautiful old church we fill during the high holidays (yet another space added to our list of “homes”) I am reminded of Heschel’s assertion (shared by Coliver) that for Jews, time is holier than place. As a part of a people that has been de-centralized for thousands of years and has struggled and thrived in multiple points on the globe, and as a member of a congregation rich in cooperative spirit and creative energy but not in property, I appreciate that Coliver offered the insight that our tradition takes time so seriously, that God blessed the 7th day, rather than a specific place.  At Kolot, we are the time that we spend together, it’s almost like we only exist through each ritual, action, relationship, every shabbat and holiday distilled to its essence…going on 20 years as a congregation and ever growing, we are proof of the holiness of time and the power of intention no matter the limitations of space.

Despite the stress it can cause to be somewhat nomadic, I believe that our experience as a congregation is richer for it. A strength-based perspective on Kolot Chayeinu’s lack of property ownership is that we are more integrated into the community around us, services & holidays are less polished performances and more participatory gatherings, and I remain humbled and inspired by the resources and energy people dedicate to fulfilling cultural and spiritual needs.

In thinking about the strengths of our congregation’s inbetweeness, I was reminded of a passage about liminality in Rabbi Elliot Kukla’s piece for Transtorah, “How I Met the Tumtum”:

Although Jewish Sages often tried to sort the world into binaries, they also acknowledged that not all parts of God’s creation can be contained in orderly boxes. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews; Shabbat and the days of the week; purity and impurity, are crucial to Jewish tradition. However, it was the parts of the universe that defied binaries that interested the rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud the most. Pages and pages of sacred texts are occupied with the minute details of the moment between fruit and bud, wildness and domestication, innocence and maturity, the twilight hour between day and night. We read in the Babylonian Talmud: “Our sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night…. Rabbi Yosi said: Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” (Shabbat 34b)

We might have thought that the ambiguity of twilight would have made it dangerous or forbidden within Jewish tradition. But in fact our Sages determined that dawn and dusk, the in-between moments, are the best times for prayer. (Babylonian Talmud Brachot 29b) Jewish tradition acknowledges that some parts of God’s creation defy categories and that these liminal people, places and things are often the sites of the most intense holiness. After all, the word for holiness in Hebrew, “kedusha”, literally means set aside or out of the ordinary.

Extending this logic, we could say that liminal spaces, such as Yom Kippur services in a church, are possibly especially fertile ground for powerful spiritual and cultural experiences.

What do we lose not having physical space dedicated solely to certain purposes we’ve designated?…and what do we gain living so intimately within and alongside other faith traditions and institutions?….what do we learn and what do we let go of?….What is the balance of specialness and stress that makes up our unique position in the city? A shared classroom is a difficult challenge, but does a shared sanctuary embody extra holiness?

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Ora Wise has a Masters in Jewish Education from the Davidson School of Jewish Education and is the director of the Children’s Learning Program at Kolot Chayeinu: Voices of Our Lives, a progressive synagogue in Brooklyn. There she implements an arts-based, pluralistic, Jewish culture and history curriculum for students from Jewish families of diverse backgrounds, many of whom are interfaith, multiracial, and GLBT. Wise is also the Curriculum Specialist for the Detroit Future Media Workshops, a program offering trainings for Detroiters interested in building Detroit’s media economy through the creation of grassroots media, and community cultural production. In the past, Wise served as the curriculum specialist and co-producer of the grassroots documentarySlingshot Hip Hop, a film documenting the lives of young hip hop artists in Palestine which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008. She also co-founded PEP (Palestine Education Project), a collective of educators, activists, youth, and artists committed to understanding common struggles against racism, militarism and displacement in Israel/Palestine, North America, and beyond.

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