What Makes for Sacred Space?

Last Friday evening, the Kabbalat Shabbat service in The Forest Hills Jewish Center took place in our newly refurbished “Little Synagogue,” the small sanctuary where our daily minyan meets. In addition to new carpeting, wallpaper and lighting fixtures, we also moved the cantor’s amud off the bima, turned it around to face the Ark, and placed it in the middle of the congregation, with chairs on either side of it and behind it. In both style and substance, it was a major change.

This refurbishing, which owes to the generosity of a few wonderful members of the congregation, had taken place over a period of several months. Like all work of this sort, it took longer than we had anticipated. Our regular minyan members, who had been exiled into an adjoining room during construction, were getting restless. And so it was that we were all understandably excited about returning to a new and better prayer space. And the chazan and I, who had pushed for the changes in physical arrangement of the prayer space, wondered how our often reluctant-to-change congregation would respond.

As it turned out, that Kabbalat Shabbat service was one of the most spiritual and spirited experiences I’ve had in my 30 years in this community. Where our regular candle-lighting-time service usually draws a small crowd, nearly 150 people showed up. People seemed to come out of the woodwork. The chazan’s davening, always beautiful and melodious, was particularly inspired, and the room was alive with singing and hand clapping. We don’t use musical instruments in our synagogue, but we had what by any standards could be called a “Friday Night Live” experience, and people walked away saying that it was one of the best and most prayerful experiences they had ever had at the synagogue.

I’ve thought a lot about those comments throughout this week, because they are so important to the work that I do. If people thought that the service was so powerful and effective, the obvious response is to do it again and again, and indeed we will. I told the people in attendance that the good news is that we can replicate the experience, with their cooperation (read attendance). I do believe that a lot of them will come back, and maybe — just maybe — we started something really wonderful last week.

But beyond re-creating that wonderful experience on a weekly basis, I also believe that there are other things to be contemplating, just as important.

First and most obvious, taking a prayer space that had looked almost exactly the same since it came into being some 63 years ago or so and giving it a makeover is in and of itself a good thing. Familiarity is a wonderful asset to prayerfulness, and not to be discounted. But becoming familiar — and too comfortable — with a space so obviously in need of a shakeup is as much an obstacle to spirited prayer as it is an asset. A good prayer space is like a security blanket for a child. It should be comforting. You have to feel comfortable clutching it, as it were, and holding it close. If it is uninspiring and tired, it will reflect itself onto the prayer itself.

The second issue has to do with the redesign of the sacred space itself, and the conscious diminution of the physical space between the chazan (and rabbi) and the congregation. Like so many Conservative synagogues of the post-war era, my synagogue’s interior architecture was more church-like than traditional shul. Auditorium seating with center and side aisles, a balcony, an elevated bima for the clergy with lecterns facing the congregation. … Aside from the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark), it’s clear what was being imitated. And with that imitation came the distance, both physical and spiritual, that characterized so many large post-war urban synagogues.

Changing the way things have been done for a long time in a synagogue is notoriously difficult. You just start to talk about it and everyone conjures up his/her personal Tevye and starts belting out “Tradition!!” And I must admit that I think one should think long and hard before abrogating a tradition and tampering with people’s comfort levels, particularly in a synagogue. There is a definite comfort in sameness, and the knowledge that things will always be what you expect them to be.

But there are those times when sameness just gets tired, and the love of the way things have always been done is not, in and of itself, a religious value. Even within the rabbinic discussions of prayer itself, there is the dialectical tension between kevah and kavanah — the requirement to pray a fixed liturgy, and the need to be spontaneous and heartfelt in one’s prayer. People who quest for new and refreshing spiritual experiences in prayer also have a leg of tradition upon which to lean…

It’s a wonderful feeling when something works better than what might realistically have been hoped for, no matter what the setting. But particularly in synagogue, where people so often love to disagree about little things, there was clear consensus last Friday night. They loved the service. And to that I can only say, Amen!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.