Monday, January 15, 2007

The weather today, (the first winter like weather this year!) reminded me of winters past, and in particular 1998, and our ice storm. Here's a piece I wrote then, which I guess is still just a relevant now.

Taking shelter from the storm

(CJN, January 22, 1998)

I remember once hearing a joke about a rabbi whose synagogue was being turned into a shelter after floods had devastated his community. The local shelter coordinator, trying to assess how many people to send to the synagogue-shelter, asked the rabbi: "How many people can sleep in your synagogue?" The rabbi responded "Well, during my sermon on Yom Kippur, our synagogue sleeps 1,000."

I can't tell you how many people sleep during my sermons; but today, in the aftermath of a disaster, our synagogue is sleeping 180. After a series of devastating storms that have crippled the Montreal area and left millions of people without power and heat, our synagogue, Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, was turned into an emergency shelter. The social hall and several of the nursery classrooms are filled with army cots and are now a dormitory for senior citizens. The library is a nursing unit for Alzheimer patients and the downstairs social hall is a cafeteria and entertainment room.

Keeping a shelter of this size going requires a lot of resources and manpower, and the synagogue's executive director, Lynda Shayer, and the nursery director, Donna Cooper, together with a team of workers from the city of Cote St. Luc are working 20-hour days making sure that everything goes right. This is no easy task. Making sure that everything goes right includes making breakfast, serving 1,000 meals a day, giving baths and shaves to senior citizens, getting donations of clothing for shelter residents, as well as countless other tasks.

Most touching have been the efforts of volunteers who have come from all over to help: a 15- year-old boy who walked every day from a distant part of town; families that took people home to give them baths and a cup of hot tea; volunteers who were available to pick people up at all times of the night; others who prepared and served meals, gave baths and shaves, and sang and danced with shelter residents.

These volunteers were from both the synagogue and the city, Jewish and non-Jewish, black and white. They were here to give of their time and energy to help those who needed it.

I guess if a sermon is a good reason for 1,000 people to sleep in a synagogue, 180 people sleeping in a synagogue is a good occasion for a sermon. And the sermon, on this icy day when we are both synagogue and shelter, is about what a synagogue should be.
The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) says that it is demeaning to call a synagogue a beit am (a house of the people), because it makes the synagogue sound secular, lacking any religious value. This statement is very strange, because the Talmud almost always refers to a synagogue as a beit knesset, (a house of gathering), which seems just as secular!

Perhaps the answer is found in the choice of words. A "house of the people" can sound as if it is relegated to a certain group of people; in short, a country club for members with similar interests. This type of gathering is purely secular and debases the holiness of the synagogue. However, a "house of gathering" includes anyone who wants to come and gather. This type of openness makes the "house of gathering" a place of love and compassion, which is itself a religious value.

There are many things a synagogue can be used for. It can be used for prayers and Torah study, and it can be used for more secular matters such a socializing, eating and sleeping. What I have learned this week is that what makes a synagogue a true place of holiness depends less on what is being done, and more on how it's being done.

A synagogue filled with prayers that makes people feel excluded is still only a beit am, an icy cold religious country club. A synagogue that serves as a shelter, a place of food and lodging, but does so out of a sense of inclusion, out of concern and compassion, is truly a beit knesset, a warm and holy place of gathering.

I guess sometimes it takes an ice storm to learn what a synagogue should be.

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