22 September 2011
I remember the day in September 2009 when a large section of our Main Sanctuary ceiling fell in. It was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the timing was extraordinary. While one was meant to be focused on our wounded souls in need of redemption, it became abundantly clear that we were a Jewish community in great need of also repairing the vessels that housed our collective souls. And thus the work began.
In truth, it had begun, conceptually, a few weeks before. One day, while sitting around on a hot August afternoon, someone on staff had offered that perhaps we were spending so much time repairing our old buildings, never seeming able to get ahead of the game. because we were dealing with a kind of mysterious curse.
You see, above the door posts of our Main Sanctuary, the name of the synagogue is written in Hebrew incorrectly--בית אלוחים--where it should read בית אלוהים--where the ח and ה are flipped. A subtle distinction; but given the long-standing Jewish linguistic tradition of the Hebrew letter ה signifying God's sacred name, it struck many of us as a kind of mysterious act of aggression against God's sanctity. That the ח is distinctly guttural, a rather primordially base clearing of the throat; whereas the ה is airy, breathy, ephemeral and, well, holy, seemed to bring the point home. That this grammatical indiscretion was carved in stone in 1909, a hundred years earlier, had us obsessing one hot August day about what might come to be on 9-09-09 of our century, until a Hebrew school teacher invaded a staff meeting on that self-same day, dressed as a dinosaur, demanding that the time had come to "reverse the curse."
And so it came to be. We had planned on inviting the Arcade Fire to come play in the Main Sanctuary but that didn't work out; and then we got busy with High Holy Days preparations; and then word came down that the anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-human Westboro Baptists from Kansas were coming to Brooklyn.
However powerless we may have felt in the face of such a theatrical onslaught of hatred was reversed by the sense that the moment had called upon us to be decent, welcoming, and good. And so as our plan for kindness was hatched, the ceiling fell. It ought never cease to amaze us as to how precisely symmetrical life can be.
The ceiling open, the heavens nearer, was an opportunity to define and affirm; to redefine and reaffirm everything historically good and inspiringly aspirational about our nearly 150 year old community. Generations gathered on our Sanctuary steps that Saturday morning to greet haters from Kansas; and the embarrassingly rich friendship and community of Brooklyn stood with us--Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists; men, women, and children; young and old; straight and gay; and then and there, it was as if I could hear the ח etched to ה and bear witness to an old-new House of God emerge.
Reverend Daniel Meeter over at Old First invited us to worship in his space until our ceiling was fixed and next week, when Rosh Hashanah approaches, we will worship at Old First for the 3rd year in a row and, should our construction go well, for the last time. Inspired by the hospitality we've been shown, the friendship between our communities has grown stronger; and we look forward with anticipation, to inviting Reverend Meeter to light a candle on our Hanukah Menorah when we return to our Main Sanctuary under a new roof this winter.
The enthusiasm for and veneration of our historic community; the depth of appreciation for our ever-evolving Jewish traditions in a century and a half of building Jewish life in Brooklyn; and the unrestrained optimism of new growth in membership--lifted upward by inspiring acts of generosity from our membership and those in the broader Jewish community who believe in what we're doing, made the raising of new scaffolding today a real blessing. Several of us literally shouted with joy when the truck arrived to begin installing a new set of pipe and board to create the lift to the roof so that demolition and replacement could proceed in the weeks ahead.
How fitting that today a young man came by the synagogue at 2:45 to our afternoon service, in need of a minyan, to say Kaddish for a father who passed away in August. Not fully literate in the Hebrew alef-bet but behaviorally rooted enough to know of his obligation to honor the blessing of his father's life with the ancient words of Kaddish, I listened, as one listens to a perfect symphony, of his distinguishing between ח and ה as an old-new language took hold, as his father's soul soared heavenward, as the curse of mourning was lifted, as new light filled his troubled soul.
Mincha ended at 3 pm on the nose; and as we've done each day for the last three weeks, we passed a tzedakah box, collecting dollars and coins for a future cause we'll soon support. That the tzedakah box is a model of the very sanctuary we have committed ourselves to repairing was a symmetry that did not go unnoticed--especially today.