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Creating a Space for God’s Presence

From Illinois to Jerusalem to Tbilisi to Moscow and back, rabbi finds presence of God in Jewish communities
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the

“And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them.”
With this phrase Moses is instructed by God to build a portable sanctuary which will accompany the Israelites throughout their desert experience. Willingly, they bring the best of materials to build a holy space in which God’s presence will dwell. It is this portable sanctuary that accompanies the Israelites in the desert and is with them through their victories with Joshua in the Land of Canaan. It is placed in Shiloh and other temporary places until King David himself brings the Ark to Jerusalem. His son Solomon builds an elaborate Temple which stands for almost 500 years. Destroyed, the Ark itself is lost, but the place remains holy and 70 years later the Children of Israel return to build that Temple once more. It stands for another 500 years and remains unbuilt until this day.
Yet, the Jewish people take God’s presence with them wherever they dwell. As Chaim Potok, in his book, Wanderings suggests, the Jewish people have moved from place to place over the course of history. Yet along with them came God’s presence, their tradition, their culture, their history and their sense of unity. And it is that concept of God’s presence which continues to be a central focus, if not the central focus, of the Jewish people today.
Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that Jews sanctify time and not space. While he is mostly correct – look at the Shabbat day as the best example – he is not totally correct. There is spatial holiness. Only a few days ago, I stood at the Kotel, the Western Wall, the only remaining wall of the ancient Temple area that still stands, and felt a sense of holiness. Beyond that wall had stood that Holy Temple and in that Temple the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, that most sacred spot in the Jewish universe. Yet, leaving the Kotel, God’s presence is still with me and I can carry it wherever I go, including here in Highland Park. We have created synagogues which house the Holy Ark in which is placed the Sefer Torah which continues to remind us of God’s presence. And, we create Jewish homes which are to be a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary, in which we live Jewish life and participate in the Jewish mission.
I have just returned from four weeks of study, conventions, missions and meetings where I spent time with Jewish communities in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Four different Shabbatot I spent in four different locales, and yet each place had a significant touch of sanctity. It reminded me of this particular Torah portion and the sanctity of time and space.
The first Shabbat I spent at a synagogue known as Shira Hadasha. It was the dream and vision of Dr. Tova Hartman, who was our Robbin Scholar-In-Residence this past fall. Tova, the daughter of Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, at whose institution and with whom I am currently studying, was disappointed and disillusioned with the role of Orthodox women in Jewish life. She wanted to remain Orthodox yet look for leniencies in Jewish law which would allow her and others to have more participation in synagogue life. As she told us, basing the synagogue on traditional sources and rabbinic interpretation, she and many others have created a vibrant, exciting and innovative Orthodox community. While men and women sit separated by a curtain during the prayer service, women can chant certain portions of the prayers and both men and women, from their individual sides, have aliyot and read Torah. Women have major roles in the leadership of the synagogue and also deliver divrei Torah, as do men. In fact, their practices actually follow in a very similar manner ours here at Beth El except, of course, that we sit together, both men and women, in public worship.
That Shabbat was the anniversary of the birth, a number of years ago, of Shira Hadasha. There was much excitement at what they have achieved and the holy community that they have created. They have attempted to reach out beyond the prayer experience to create opportunities for study, social action and home hospitality. And what is more significant, their model in Israel and in the United States has been followed and is creating innovative, exciting and vibrant communities of prayer and social action.
There are still many challenges as they are not totally accepted within the Orthodox community, and especially that of Jerusalem. However, one could feel the sanctity and the excitement in the synagogue on both Friday night and Shabbat morning.
The second Shabbat was spent with our family on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, which is near the city of Beit Shean, not too far from the Sea of Galilee. There lives Bryna’s sister, our brother-in-law, and some of their family. Our small family and their larger family, all 20 of us, with three generations present, including many babies, spent Shabbat together on the kibbutz. While kibbutz life around the country has been in a great deal of distress and turmoil, Sde Eliyahu continues to be a thriving community. It is a religious kibbutz based on Orthodox principles, but its outlook and the demeanor of its people is mostly what we would term centrist or Modern Orthodox. There in the synagogue we spent our Shabbat evening and day in prayer. It is a very close community as people work, live, study, and pray together. While we are outsiders, we have been there so often that we know many people.
It is a typical Israeli Orthodox service. The service is chanted very quickly with a minimum of singing. Yet, this space became holy as the community, which works in agriculture and some small industries during the week, changed its appearance and its demeanor and underwent a 25-hour period of sanctity until it returned, after Shabbat, to its work and its normal living procedures. For that 25-hour period there was something special on the kibbutz. The tractors didn’t move, no tree trimming took place and no office work was done. Only the essentials of caring for the animals were administered. Within the synagogue and the dining hall, on the grounds and in individual homes, God’s Divine Presence was felt as the community enveloped the Shabbat Queen.
The third Shabbat was spent as part of my mission on behalf of the Jewish Agency to the Caucasus and Moscow. As Co-Chairman of the Former Soviet Union Committee for the Agency, I traveled with our director to Tbilisi, Baku, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Moscow. Each of the countries is different. Tbilisi, in Georgia, has just undergone a war with Russia and is still reeling from the impact. It is a Christian country with good relations with the West and the State of Israel. Baku, in Azerbaijan, is a Muslim dictatorship. With oil being its major industry, it had years of growth and economic success. Now with the price of oil falling, life has become a little more difficult. Building was going on everywhere, but most construction has now stopped in place. The Jewish community must be rather careful, and yet Jews live, pray, study and make Baku their home.
In Uzbekistan, where I visited the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand, life is also dominated by a moderate Muslim dictatorship. Its relations with the West are not good after it put down a revolt a number of years ago. However, in a meeting with the Israeli Ambassador in Tashkent, he told me that he feels that Israel should have a closer relationship with the country and needs to foster common ideals. It is totally a different part of the world, yet being with members of the Jewish community in both cities and speaking Hebrew with all of them, made me feel quite at home, even in this country which is 11 hours removed from Chicago.
My final stop for a day was Moscow. I had not visited Moscow since 1983. It is a different world, to say the least. Where I was once frightened to walk the streets as a Jew, knowing that I was followed by KGB agents, I could now publicly walk into a Jewish center in the middle of the city, find a kosher restaurant and a library, visit a magnificent synagogue and see Jewish study activities taking place in the open.
The purpose of this trip was to touch the Jewish community and to learn of their exploits, to see how the Jewish Agency helps them and can continue to help them in education, aliyah and Jewish cultural experiences, to learn from the Israeli ambassadors of their relationship with the local communities and the governments, and to hear from them some of the issues which are troubling them on the local level.
Shabbat was spent in Tbilisi in a Georgian synagogue. Their custom is to recite every word out loud, and the chazzan did so. One of their most interesting customs occurred Friday night between Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat. Publicly they auctioned off the aliyot for next week, and although I could not understand the language, I knew there was a competition for some of the honors. I was offered an aliyah Shabbat morning and they had to add an extra one for me as all of them had already been sold the previous week.
I had the privilege of delivering the d’var Torah in Hebrew, translated into Georgian. In front of the rabbis of the community, members of the synagogue and the Israeli community, I taught a lesson about the Ten Commandments and the meaning of “You shall not covet.” It was an amazing experience to be able to teach Torah just as I do here at Beth El, in a totally different country, yet in a similar space. While the service felt a little bit foreign, I felt very much at home. Shabbat was ushered in the same way, the entire prayer experience throughout the day was extremely familiar and with only slight differences in the order of the service, I followed perfectly. A synagogue which had stood during the Hitler years and the Stalin era was now opened to all. I walked the streets of Tbilisi with a kippa on my head and felt comfortable. The Sephardic Sefer Torah, which is different than ours, still held the same words, and God’s presence was surely felt by me and the others present in the synagogue during that day.
The final Shabbat was spent, just after I returned from the trip, with my children in Modiin. The city has grown to be one of the larger cities in Israel and houses a combination of religious and secular people, many of whom are commuters working either on the Mediterranean Coast or in Jerusalem. My son-in-law, Haim, goes to services each Shabbat in a school just across the street from their apartment. It was again the typical Orthodox service, but sitting beside my son-in-law, and on Friday night my grandson, made the moment very special. I had been in the Former Soviet Union the previous week, and now I was back in Israel. The sanctity of the Shabbat was the very same; the services, with slight differences, were very similar and I felt God’s presence once more as we spent a wonderful Shabbat together before I traveled Sunday to the Jewish Agency meetings in Jerusalem.
And now I return to North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park to be with my beloved congregation and community and to celebrate bnai mitzvah and a babynaming. With all our participation and our study of the Torah reading we create once more a space for God’s presence to dwell among us.
“And you shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them.”
This has been our motto from almost the very beginning of Jewish life as we stood at Mount Sinai and became God’s chosen people. It continues to be the rationale for our existence and our purpose and mission in life. No matter where I was around the world I felt God’s presence and the commanding voice at Sinai. I appreciated Shabbat and recognized my commonality with Jews wherever we may live, for wherever we may be, our Torah, our tradition, our culture and our common destiny continues to unite us.
And now as I return to this synagogue, the challenge for us here as well is to create a sanctified community, a place of spatial and temporal holiness, a community of caring individuals who are committed to one another, as we work to create a better world. It is the perpetual Jewish challenge and mission. May we take that challenge upon ourselves with love and respect building a model Jewish community of which others will be able to say – God dwells therein.
Vernon Kurtz is rabbi at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, and a Fellow of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at Shalom Hartman Institute. Adapted from a sermon given for Parshat Terumah, February 28, 2009

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