Is it all about location? — Rules of Jewish communal life are changing

It’s been said that the three most important words in real estate are “location, location, location.”

According to language expert William Safire, this phrase dates back to mid-1920s Chicago. For nearly a century in the United States, it either felt or actually was true. We built or bought houses, synagogues, and office buildings based on location, and demographic trends seemed to track to it.

But today, there are signs all around us that the rules of work and life and yes, real estate, are changing. From the congregant who telecommutes or occasionally travels to a satellite office in a residential building outside the city, to the rabbinic colleague who is building a growing and vibrant Jewish community in an area with a small local economy, I’m hearing stories that suggest the landscape of work and home and community are changing quickly. These examples point to the emergence of location independence both at work and in communities.

Are we, as a Jewish community, tracking these changes and planning around their impact on our future? Are we aligning our communal institutions and structures with the profound 21st century demographic, economic, and lifestyle shifts that are taking greater hold around us every day? I propose that we set a time, at least once a year in this era of rapid change, to conduct an inventory of our buildings and evaluate our creation and use of sacred and communal space. Now is a great time to do just that.

We are at a place in our Torah reading cycle when our parshiyot (Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tisa, and Pekudei) to a greater or lesser extent train our attention on the creation of sacred space. In parashat Terumah, which we read last week, God gives Moses instructions for building the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary, and all of its components. The most important holy object to be built is listed first, the ark, made of acacia wood and overlaid inside and out with pure gold and with a pure gold molding around it. It was to be built with four rings attached to its four corners or feet, through which poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold would be inserted. The poles are for carrying the ark, God tells Moses, adding: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it” (Exodus 25:14-15). And following this detailed instruction proves meaningful and important.

We read in 1 Kings chapter 8 about the auspicious moment when the Mishkan and all the holy vessels are brought up into the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, and the long poles were still there, poking out!

We know the ark is the most important part of the Mishkan not only because the instructions for it come first, but also because of what Moses should put in it: the two tablets with the Ten Commandments. In the JPS Torah Commentary series, Nahum Sarna explains the widespread ancient Near Eastern practice of depositing legal documents in a sacred place. This added importance to them, and implied that the deity would guard and enforce the covenants. In references to the practice, documents were said to be placed “before” or “beneath the feet” of the deity. This helps to some extent to clarify the role of the kapporet, the solid gold lid that covers the ark and is flanked with cherubim on either end. If, symbolically, the ark is God’s footstool, the kapporet holds up God’s invisible throne. The cherubim symbolize God’s sovereignty; their outstretched wings represent flight and mobility.

From rings to outstretched wings, the ark and its kapporet were constructed with motion in mind. Perhaps the most famous verse from parashat Terumah is Exodus 25:8: “And let them make Me a sanctuary (mikdash) that I may dwell (v’shachanti) among them.” It was Sarna’s clarification that the Mishkan was constructed as a “central, mobile sanctuary to serve as the symbol of God’s continued Presence … [but] not designed, as are modern places of worship, for communal use” that got me thinking about our modern designs. Synagogues today are modeled on the Mishkan; among other elements, we have an ark with the 10 Commandments (the Torah) inside. In all my life, however, I’ve never seen poles, not even poking out back behind some curtain. I’m beginning to wonder if, along with those poles, we’ve lost some mobility. The Mishkan was designed to move with us, facilitating religious practice wherever we went. Another way of saying that is that it too was “location independent.”

I’m advocating that we make the study and discussion of demographic, real estate, and design trends a central part of our Jewish communal discussions. With the exception of a select few, most of us aren’t trained as architects, city planners, or real estate tycoons. As novices, we’ll have to start somewhere. I searched on “Rav Google” (as my rabbinic colleagues sometimes call it) for “profound changes in the real estate market.” I read the first result, PwC’s 40-page report “Real Estate 2020: Building the Future.” It’s written for the real estate investment industry, not for Jewish communal professionals, but nonetheless some of the report’s predictions, in my opinion, are relevant to our communities, including the overarching anticipation that technology will disrupt the economics of real estate as we know it.

Here are some gems gleaned from the report: The 21st century is witnessing the Great Urban Migration, in both developing and developed countries. The need for physical space is already shrinking across most subsectors. Cities will be in tense competition, and not all will prosper. There will be decreased demand for family homes, deflation in house prices, and rising rental costs. Building valuation will be driven significantly by energy efficiencies, environmental certifications, and principles of sustainability, including whether people actually enjoy living and working there. Finally, aging and other populations will increasingly demand specialist types of real estate, and our social networks will help determine where and how people will want to work and live.

I’m tempted to call my proposal for such an undertaking the Jewish Communal Space Review, but I’m worried that it will be confused with rocket science. It isn’t rocket science — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We need to count cubits and compare our communal resources against present and future communal needs, anticipating and researching trends to stay current and relevant.

So let’s dust off those rings and go find some poles. It’s time to carry our Jewish sacred space forward with us, wherever we go.

About the Author
Rabbi Jacob M. Lieberman is a Reconstructionist rabbi, meaning maker, and social change agent. He believes that inspired [+ Jewish] living starts today with wonder, gratitude and curiosity. Jacob mixes wit, openness, vision, community building and social justice with spiritual growth then follows it up with hard work, one day at a time. Jacob is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a biological and adoptive parent to two beautiful Ethiopian Jewish kids.
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