Synagogues: Both a link to the past and the future

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
October 5, 2012
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I entered rabbinical school in 2005 having no clear vision of what type of position I would hold following ordination, but knowing one thing for sure – I would never seek employment in a synagogue.  Synagogues seemed so ’20th century’ to me; a relic of the past without much of a promise for the future.  While in rabbinical school I attended independent minyanim and helped in organizing one as well, confident that innovative communities such as Kehilat Kedem in Jerusalem, Kehilat Hadar in New York, Tikkun Leil Shabbat in Washington, DC, IKAR and the Shtibl Minyan in Los Angeles, that these communities were on the forefront of contemporary innovation in Jewish worship and represent the future of Jewish communal prayer.  Then, come my final semester of rabbinical school I decided to apply to a few positions as a pulpit rabbi and, lo and behold, I got one…

After being in my new position for a few months, I was discussing with a congregant ways of altering our sanctuary to make it more conducive to lively communal prayer.  I made a suggestion which involved moving some unused pews to a new location.  “Rabbi!  You can’t move that pew…  My grandfather sat there.”  Now, just to set the scene – the woman pointing out to me where her grandfather sat herself has grandchildren, and doing the math quickly in my head I shortly realized that her grandfather had been dead for probably 50 years or more.

Next year my congregation will celebrate 125 years, this year we are celebrating 100 years in our sanctuary.  Standing in the sanctuary is often a completely surreal experience for me.  I can feel the weight of a century of prayers, I can hear a century of whispers.  What is a young, know-nothing inexperienced rabbi who may or may not believe in the power of the synagogue to propel the Jewish people through the 21st century doing at the helm of a 125 year old congregation?  Learning the error of my presumptions.

There is something simultaneously amusing, upsetting, hopeless and hopeful about a person clinging to a seat that no one ever sits in because of who once sat there.  And yet, I soon grew to realize, it wasn’t about the pew at all – it was the notion that her own grandchildren would one day be in that same sanctuary with their own grandchildren and say, ‘that’s where my grandmother sat… and that’s where her grandfather sat, your great-great-grandfather.’  Yes, in a very real way this represents a longing for a past gone-by; but it is equally as hopeful for a future not yet realized.

I learn and teach Torah with people who have lived in this community for their entire lives, and they are 5th generation in their family to do so.  Every day they sit with the reality that, in all likelihood, there may not be too many more generations of Jewish families here.  The synagogue represents not only the binding force of the community, but the binding force of their memories and their hopes.

Communities like the ones I mentioned above, and truth be told would probably still prefer to pray with, serve an important function in the landscape of Jewish community.  However, even leaving aside style, form and content, there is something fundamental that only a synagogue can provide – the perception of permanence, of legacy.  Even if I were to never pray in a traditional synagogue again, I have at the very least quickly learned that its day is not yet done and its role in the landscape of Jewish community, especially for those of us on the fringes, is as essential today as it ever was.

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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