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Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Why do we need synagogues? (Parshat Terumah)

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One of the most precious and prominent institutions in the Jewish community is under attack during COVID: the synagogue.

Now, I am confident about the eternality of the synagogue, and I thank all the Rabbis and the Rebbetzins and the lay leaders who are doing so much to guarantee and ensure the survival of the synagogue during this pandemic.

But perhaps one of the key messages that is necessary in order to make sure that we guarantee the eternality of the synagogue is found in this week’s Torah portion.

God tells Moshe and the Jewish people:  “ועשו לי מקדש”, ‘create for me a Tabernacle; create for me a Temple’, “ושכנתי בתוכם”, ‘that I may dwell therein.’ [Exodus 25:8]

Initially it was the Tabernacle, then the First Temple, then the Second Temple; and then it developed into smaller “temples” known as synagogues.

As the Talmud states, based on the statement in Ezekiel 11:16, “miniature tabernacles”, “miniature temples”. [Megillah 29a; see also Rashi to Ezekiel 11:16]

In fact that, we’re told that with the first exile from Israel, they took shards of stones from the Temple, and they used it as basically the cornerstones of all the synagogues that they built. [Iggeret (Epistle) of Rav Sherira Gaon, Siman 83]

The fact that when we build our synagogues they face towards the Temple [Berakhot 30a], highlights the idea that our synagogues are the spiritual progeny of the Temple and of the Tabernacle.

But the Temple was not just a place of prayer, not just the place of sacrifice. The Temple had multiple portals of entry through which one could communicate with God:

Essentially, the Temple was the central address for the needs of the Jewish people to find a connection to God.

Synagogues that understand that part of our mission as a synagogue – which does not mean place a prayer – it means a place of gathering, a central address, beit knesset, a place in which we deal with all different issues.

Synagogues that, during COVID, make sure that they extend themselves to people who are lonely; make sure they extend themselves to youth searching for some spiritual connection, for families searching for some spiritual identity; synagogues that find a way to deal with all the different challenges and convene resources for their congregants; are synagogues that understand their mandate to provide multiple portals of spiritual entry, multiple ways for youth, adults and seniors to connect.

And I have seen that synagogues that understand that it’s not just the place of prayer, but a place that can reach out, and be a Heaven and a haven for those around them, those synagogues continue to grow, even though their attendance at prayer service may be more limited.

Please God, we will understand and leave this COVID pandemic stronger when we understand that the message of a synagogue is to be the spiritual progeny of the Temple, ways in which we find to help each individual connect and have a romantic rendezvous with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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