20 June 2009

Go See For Yourself (and Get It Right)

If you're like me, or someone who cares about our buildings at CBE, you always quake in fear (the non-religious kind) whenever it rains.

And so with rain falling yet again, I wonder what new damage will be revealed to our Sanctuary at 271 Garfield. Standing since 1909, this magnificent space has absorbed generations of prayers, confessions, hopes and dreams; it has also celebrate births and weddings, memorialized the dead, and served as the space in which children receive their names, become bar and bat mitzvah, graduate to college; finally, it has been the main dedicated space for sanctifying time and the historical moments of memory for our people--the Festivals and Holy Days on the calendar in which we thank God for our existence and pledge ourselves to be beneficiaries of God's protection for another year of life and blessing.

But when it rains--well, the plaster can fall from the ceiling; new peeling paint can reveal secret messages spelled in the firmament; or a slow process of decay and neglect can, beyond our best determination, continue on paths of destruction we have yet to discover.

Having just finished our Temple House Roof Replacement, we have taken the first of many, many steps to renovate our facilities and put them in the proper condition for another century of service to Brooklyn. But we are not yet in the Promised Land. There is a long, long way to go.

And we need help.

Our House Committee, a terrific group of individuals, is working up a priorities list to present in full-form to the Board of Trustees and the entire Congregation, with the idea that we can all begin to share a sense of responsibility for the care of our buildings. And I've seen the drafts--so believe me when I tell you there will be something for everyone: that's how big the list is.

Some of the work is simply deferred maintenance. The problems have plagued the Congregation for decades and only now is it finally time to face them once and for all. Until, of course, another generation faces them. That's the nature of old buildings.

This week I was reading Annie Polland's wonderful history of the Eldridge Street Synagogue--Landmark of the Spirit.In this book, Polland melds architecture and Jewish history to explore the important community decisions that informed the Eldridge Street Synagogue's founders to make the choices they did about their building, more than a century ago. And today, during services, I was moved to begin spontaneously talking about what differentiated Reform and Orthodox communities a hundred years ago that mitigated toward certain factors of space that continue to haunt me--like tall bimas removed from the people in their ordered pews. I found myself wishing to be in the midst of the people, as the founders of Eldridge Street decided when they built their building. I thought of this as I watched the rain fall outside during the service and then moved my eyes heavenward ("I lift my eyes to mountains, what is the source of my help? My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth." Psalm 121) But God willing my help will come from architecture schools at Yale, Harvard, Cooper Union, and Pratt, too.

In this week's Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, we read that "the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, 'Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them." (Numbers 13.1) The rabbis insist on translating "shelach lecha" as "go see for yourself," meaning, God had already promised the land. It was theirs to take. But they had fears and doubts and in frustration God said, "So go see for yourself." With a hint of exasperation, God seemed to be saying to Israel, "Your fears are only delaying the inevitable work required to own the sacred space I'm giving you."

And so it is with us, folks.

We need men and women, boys and girls, to "go see for themselves." We need ideas and creativity; we need hearts beating with commitment, souls searching for peace and comfort in a sacred space; and we need money--lots and lots of money.

So over the course of the summer, as you walk past our buildings, stick your head inside. Sit in rooms, inhabit and own the experience of being a part of history. Go see and experience for yourself what YOU think about sacred and communal space and how that interfaces with what our founders thought a hundred years ago.

And prepare yourselves for an exciting Fall, when we gather again after a brief relaxing summer to rededicate ourselves, in our Sanctuary's 100th year, to fix it up and get it right.

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