The Heart of the Temple

Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Day 5769 – October 9, 2008

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

We must be out of our minds, all of us here in the Barshop Auditorium today. We could be worshiping this Yom Kippur morning in the glorious, magnificent Wulfe Sanctuary, our own “Holy of Holies.” The dome evokes eternity. The marble and the bronze befit the glory of Torah. Simply being in that space carries our minds back to precious hours of worship in years gone by, a great family celebration, the most meaningful spiritual moments of our lives.

And yet, we worship in the Barshop Auditorium this morning. For one reason or another, we have briefly absented ourselves from the geographic heart of Temple Beth-El, seeking solace and spirituality here.

The Wulfe Sanctuary represents what many would consider to be the central purpose of the synagogue. The Temple is a House of Worship. We come here to serve God, to seek connection to the Divine.

Many find comfort here not just on Holy Days, but weekly on Shabbat. Friday night is an exciting time at Temple Beth-El. Somehow, we have members who don’t know or don’t believe it, but we routinely have 250 or more worshiping with us every single Friday. No longer to we have to plan a special program to bring a large crowd to the Temple for Shabbat. On Friday nights, the Temple is the place to be.

Even more people enter our building on Sunday mornings during the school year. For many, the Temple is primarily a House of Study. While we provide educational opportunities for people of all ages, our best “customers” are children, with some credit due to their parents. We want to ensure that the next generation of Jewish adults will be knowledgeable and prepared to live our faith and transmit our heritage into the future.

The synagogue has always been known by these names: Beit T’fillah, House of Worship; and Beit Midrash, House of Study. However, the Greek word “synagogue” is a translation of a third Hebrew term: Beit K’nesset, Gathering Place. Which comes first? What is the heart of the Temple? Worship, Study or Community?

At first glance, the notion that the Temple is a community center seems odd, or at best secondary. Most of us come here, and pretty much only here, to worship. We would also agree that the Temple is the primary place for our study of Judaism. On the other hand, each of us is part of many communities, and most of them don’t meet here.

But I wonder: When people come here on Friday night, is worship really the primary focus? Don’t get me wrong. The folks who gather here regularly on Shabbat pray with sincerity and fervor, whether in the Wulfe Sanctuary or the Barshop Auditorium. And yet, even for the Rabbi, the worship service itself doesn’t seem to be the “end all and be all” of Friday night at Temple Beth-El.

As folks arrive, our President, Leslie Selig Byrd, greets you at the entrance. Members of the Shalom Committee wish everybody a “Shabbat Shalom,” and make sure all get to the service they are seeking. Arrive late? You are greeted warmly nonetheless, and handed a prayerbook, pointed to the correct page. From where the Rabbi stands, every Friday night looks like a family reunion. People embrace after a week of every day lives that separate them.

An hour later, the service ends. Wherever we have worshiped, we gather right here in the Barshop Auditorium for Kiddush. The “family reunion” atmosphere returns. Then, the best part: Many of our members and guests leave the Temple to go enjoy Shabbat dinner together, most often without explicitly having made advanced plans. Until recently, an organized monthly gathering for singles and couples was focused exclusively on those over age 40. A so-called “problem” emerged. Nobody wanted to leave out the 20- and 30-somethings, who wanted to be included themselves. Nothing makes a person feel more welcome at a synagogue than to be invited to dinner the first time they show up. Nothing. And that’s exactly what happens at Temple Beth-El, every single week.

I am so deeply moved every Friday, especially when I think back to a rather unpleasant evening in July, 1992. Somebody thought I should meet with the Outreach Committee, in my home, during my opening weeks as Assistant Rabbi. Perhaps it was someone’s idea of hazing for the new Rabbi. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself under attack. Temple Beth-El is cold. Long-time members stick to themselves and don’t talk to others at the Oneg Shabbat. Meanwhile, some of those same life-long members were feeling alienated and left out in their own Temple. We have come a long way, and really the change began in 1992, when Rene Wender joined our staff as Membership Coordinator, fulfilling Rabbi Stahl’s vision. Now, sixteen years later, as I talk to my colleagues, I do not know of any other Reform Temple anywhere that has been so successful in making this transformation.

Yom Kippur, though, is not a day for self-congratulation. It is a day for self-examination. It is a day when we critique, and perhaps even criticize, ourselves. It is a day when we commit to do better in the year ahead. And I am here to tell you: Temple Beth-El can be more loving, and more actively embracing, of each person who walks through our portals. We can be more welcoming, and we must become a more caring community in the year ahead. We can fulfill our destiny as a synagogue, as Beit K’nesset, the home of our community.

Not everybody feels fully included in our shared congregational home.

Last year, after the High Holy Days, I heard a troubling story from a young woman, let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer comes to Temple every Friday with her husband. Last year, she had injured her foot, which anybody could see by looking. Sitting near the aisle on Rosh Hashanah, Jennifer suddenly felt besieged, as a woman she didn’t know leaned over her to talk with a friend. Jennifer politely asked the lady to be careful of her wounded foot. Nevertheless, the woman continued talking with her friend, invading Jennifer’s space so egregiously that she kept kicking that injured foot. Jennifer perceived herself to be nonexistent in the eyes of her fellow Temple member.

In a real community, when people see one another on Rosh Hashanah, even if they don’t know each other yet, they say, “L’shanah tovah,” wishing each other a good and sweet new year. In a caring community, people do not act as though another human being does not exist. In a synagogue community, nobody’s hurt foot, or hurt feelings, is beyond our concern.

I was equally disturbed early this past summer, when a resignation letter arrived at the Temple. Susan indicated that she and Jeff were happy with our Religious School, worship and program. Sadly, though, mid-way through the elementary school years, Susan said that she and her family had not found community at Temple Beth-El.

Susan admitted that they had not attended on Shabbat and that she had made no real effort to hang around and make friends on Sunday mornings. The bottom line, though, was that only the Rabbis and Temple staff had gone out of our way to be friendly. Even after several years, Temple Beth-El had not become a Beit K’nesset, a community home, for Susan and her family. Therefore, it could not be a House of Prayer or Study for them either.

Earlier, I told you that I don’t know of a Reform synagogue that has built a more meaningful and embracing faith community than Temple Beth-El. Jennifer could be stepped upon and Susan could fail to find community at Reform congregations across the land.

Nevertheless, a better example is available to us. It is found in the Christian Church.

Jeremy drove up to a large Church last Sunday. A first-time worshiper, he was looking for a new spiritual home. A greeter asked him to roll down his window in the parking lot and introduced himself. Having been discovered as a newcomer, Jeremy was directed to special parking, where another greeter welcomed him and walked him into Church. The greeter, Beth, introduced herself; but in case Jeremy was distracted, he didn’t really need to remember her name. Beth had a name tag. It turned out that just about everybody in church had one. Soon enough, Jeremy was offered one. He could have turned it down, but name tags are apparently the way to go at this Church. His identified him as a newcomer. Beth introduced him to various people along the way, particularly folks who might live near him, are in his age bracket, and are newly divorced, like Jeremy, all information that Beth casually learned as she and Jeremy chatted on their way to the Sanctuary. Beth found somebody who was happy to sit with Jeremy, a man named Steven with whom he was surprised to find much in common. Steven guided him through whatever aspects of the service might have been unfamiliar. By the time worship had ended, Jeremy felt comfortable accompanying Steven to his Sunday School class and then to lunch with a group. Jeremy may never connect with Beth again. He might not even recognize that first parking lot greeter the next time he sees him. Maybe he and Steven won’t ultimately find much in common. And yet, the Church will provide him with community. It will therefore become his House of Worship, his House of religious learning.

At Temple Beth-El, we are almost there. We can become as welcoming as that Church, with our own distinct flavor, our Jewish theology, our own Torah and heritage.

We need to follow the example of our Shalom Committee and the call of our President: We need more name tags, a lot more name tags. That way, we will implicitly announce, each and every one of us, that we are ready to share ourselves with people who are new to us, just as we are eager to see our long-time friends.

Next, we all, and I do mean all, need to join the Shalom Committee. It’s great that a score or more of Temple members are regularly engaged in active welcoming. But that needs to happen on Sunday morning and on Saturday morning as much as it does on Friday night. Together, we can transform the Temple into everybody’s very own home.

Those of us who have been here “forever” can be proud to share our Temple with folks who have joined us more recently. Those of us who are “newer” can be grateful to all who built before us. All of us can be proud of the community that Temple Beth-El has become, and work to make it the community we are destined to be.

The Wulfe Sanctuary will always be our sentimental Temple home. And yet, almost thirty years ago, the leaders who envisioned this Barshop Auditorium situated it in a building they called the Phillips Community House. They understood that a synagogue is more than a House of Prayer and a House of Study. At its heart, Temple Beth-El is a religious community, a Beit K’nesset. Each of us can enhance the embrace, enveloping every person who enters our Temple’s portals. Then, shall we all learn Torah, and then shall we find God, together, with community as the heart of our Temple.