Rabbi Cohen Kol Nidrei 5776 / 2015 Sermon – “Looking Through the Windows of the Past Into the Future”

Kol Nidrei / Erev Yom Kippur 5776
September 23, 2015
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Looking Through the Windows of the Past Into the Future

Kol Nidrei is the time that we look through the windows of our lives and consider where we have been as well as look through with a glimpse to where we are going. Part of being in the Tabernacle is to be aware of our community, both present and our past.

The Jewish community is vast, not only in how the Jewish people are found in every corner of the world, but also in culture, tradition and religious practice. Jews of every country share a common bond through Torah, yet we are as diverse a people because our language is not only that which we find in Torah, but also from the land in which we live. So too are our places of worship a reflection of the communities in which we live. The architecture found in our synagogues mirror the communities in which we live yet each synagogue speaks the unique language of the Jewish people echoing the stories and values of God, Torah and Israel.

For those who are TBS transplants, think about the synagogues you’ve been a part of before. How were they designed? What did the space feel like for you? What was the history of that congregation? How did you feel when you were in the space? As we’ve created this sacred space, and yes, there are blessings from fires – we were able to step back and ask, what is important in our congregation? Who are we and how does this space reflect our identity. Now, our sanctuary is filled with light! This was something that our architect, Richard Berliner first noticed about our synagogue prior to the fire; it was so dark considering what a vibrant community we are.

The Talmud prescribes that we are to build our synagogues with windows. Berakhot (31a) uses the example of Daniel’s place of prayer in which we read, “his windows were open in his upper chamber.” (Daniel 6:11) Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, said having windows are a reminder to each of us that during our prayers we must not be so withdrawn into our own needs, but to also be aware of the outside world.

And now, we have windows in our sanctuary. First, the windows above our ark the illuminate it in such a way that it seems to glow. And yes, the neir tamid, is on and still powered by the sun, but during the day, the natural light, the light created by God, truly is our neir tamid.

We also have eight new windows on the eastern side of our sanctuary. Embedded in the Jerusalem stone, stone that actually did come from quarries in Israel, we have eight beautiful windows created by glass artists Steve Klein and Richard Parrish. Steve and Rich approached Linda and Danny Weissberg with this concept of silk screening images of synagogues throughout history on to jewel colored glass that they would manufacture. It was then our task to choose which synagogues would be represented. Trust me, not such an easy feat! There are thousands of synagogues to choose from. But what was important was to choose synagogues from our history, ancient to modern day, that represent our community and the Jewish people. And yes, we are diverse and we all come from so many corners of the world. So now, the moment many of you have been waiting for, what are the synagogues on our walls?

1 - Second Temple Jerusalem

1 – Second Temple Jerusalem

As you entered, you hopefully received a sheet with pictures of our windows. We begin with number 1: The first synagogue was not a synagogue, yet it comes from our beginnings, it is the Second Temple in Jerusalem, also known as Herod’s Temple, built in 349 BCE. It is here on Mt. Moriah that Abraham almost offered his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice as we read at Rosh Hashanah. This mountain would become the place where God would promise Abraham and all his descendants the land of Israel. It would be on this mountain that the Jewish people would build a Temple to God and where our offerings would be sent in a pillar of fire and smoke. And even in its destruction in 70 CE, this would be the mountain from which the Jewish people would travel to new lands, new communities, new homes.

2. K'far Baram

2. K’far Baram

Window #2: This is K’far Baram, a synagogue in the Galilee, Israel built around 200 CE – After the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews were exiled to Babylonia. During that time the relationship with God evolved into a religion of personal prayer rather than sacrifice. This evolution of the religion continued even after the Second Temple was rebuilt. Then after the Second Temple was destroyed, we move into the period of rabbinic Judaism; a Judaism in which the leaders of the people are the learned rabbis rather than the priests, or Kohanim, of Ancient Temple times. It is said that the Prophet Obadiah and Queen Esther are buried in K’far Baram. This synagogue is one of the most ancient synagogues in Israel and is a link to the Mishnah and Talmud, hence an important link to Jewish tradition and law.

3. Eliyahu Hanavi

3. Eliyahu Hanavi

Window #3: Our journey takes us south of Israel to Alexandria, Egypt. Eliyahu Hanavi was built is 1354. This congregation was chosen as a congregation representing Sephardic tradition – Jews whose ancestry comes from Spain and the Middle East. Eliyahu Hanavi is significant for its location being in Egypt as it is the home of Moses Maimonides, one of our greatest teachers and author of his Mishnah Torah and Guide for the Perplexed. Egypt was the center of Jewish learning outside of Israel in the 12th century with a thriving Jewish community until the Second World War when the Jews of Egypt left afraid that the Nazis would come into Egypt. Then in 1956, after the Suez Crisis and a growing climate of nationalism under Nasser, the once Jewish population of 80,000 dwindled to less than 100. For the most part, if there are any Jews in Egypt over the holy days, they pray in the heavily guarded synagogues in Cairo. Today, Eliyahu Hanavi, remains mostly empty except for a few tourists who talk their way in with the guards and some women who will come in and still clean the sanctuary. It is kept in pristine condition and maybe some day the Jewish community will once again be allowed to pray within its marbled sanctuary.

4. Old New Synagogue

4. Old New Synagogue

Window #4: An appropriate name: The Old New Synagogue, built in Prague in 1270. Legend says that the foundation stones were delivered by angels from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem with the agreement that they be returned when the Temple is restored. It is Czechoslovakia that our Holocaust scroll originated. As the oldest remaining synagogue in Prague, it is home to many legends. Most known is the story of the Golem, the creature made of clay and brought to life by Rabbi Loew in order to protect the Jewish community. The legend is told that the body of the Golem lies in the attic always protecting the synagogue. The Golem, a creature fashioned out of mud, that with the letters, alef, mem, tav, the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alef-bet and which spells emet, meaning, truth, were written on its forehead, it would come to life and protect the Jewish community. To deactivate the Golem, the alef would be removed, leaving the word, meit, meaning dead. Legend says that it is because of the Golem that the Old New Synagogue survived a number of the pogroms and the Nazis when an agent tried to breach the genizah in the attic but who perished instead. To this day, the attic is not accessible to the public and the lowest part of the staircase has been removed to ensure no one enters.

5. Wooden Synagogue (Top) & New Synagogue Berlin (Bottom)

5. Wooden Synagogue (Top) & New Synagogue Berlin (Bottom)

Window # 5: Here we have two synagogues. The top is that of a Wooden Synagogue from Poland. This synagogue architecture was developed in Poland and Lithuania between mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century. Wood was easily accessible and most important for the Jewish community, there was no need to obtain a permit from the government to erect a masonry synagogue. While these were intricate fabricated wood structures, most Wooden Synagogues were destroyed during the times of the pogroms and the First and Second World Wars.

I chose to have the Wooden synagogue combined with the New Synagogue in Berlin that was originally built in 1866 and was the largest synagogue in Europe with 3200 seats. The design is Moorish in style, inspired by synagogues from Spain. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Nazis took Torah scrolls and furniture out from the synagogue and burned them in the streets. The synagogue was destroyed during World War II by Allied Force bombings in 1943 and then torched by the Berliners in 1944 and finally destroyed by the Communist East Germans in the 1950s. However, through the perseverance of the Jewish community in Berlin, the synagogue restoration project started in the 1980s and it was reopened in 1995.

It is significant to have both of these synagogues on one window in that they are a reminder of the tragic past of Eastern European pogroms and the Holocaust. The greatest lesson is that the Jewish people will never forget the Holocaust or any times of anti-Semitism. Zachor, we should always remember.

6. Dohany Street Synagogue (L) & Great Choral Synagogue (R)

6. Dohany Street Synagogue (L) & Great Choral Synagogue (R)

Window #6: The first synagogue on the left, is the Dohany Street Synagogue found in Budapest, Hungary and built in 1859. The synagogue was situated on the border of the Budapest ghetto during the Holocaust. Its most famous historical figure was Theodore Herzl whose birthplace is right next to the synagogue. Theodore Herzl was responsible for establishing the Zionist movement and then understanding that the Jewish people must have their own homeland. Even before the Holocaust, Herzl, as a young journalist, witnessed anti-Semitism throughout Europe and established the Zionist Congress to help set the vision for the State of Israel. By combining Dohany and the Great Choral Synagogue, positioned next to the Dohany Synagogue, we are reminded of the struggle for religious freedom for Jews and the beginning of the journey toward Zionism and the establishment of the modern State of Israel. The Great Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg was built in 1880. It is the second largest synagogue in Europe. This synagogue was chosen not only for its beauty and historical significance of being such a grand synagogue, but also because so many of us trace our Jewish roots to Russia.

7. Florence Synagogue

7. Florence Synagogue

Window #7 is that of the Florence Synagogue, or the Tempio Maggiore built in 1882. The Florence Jewish community began in the late 14th century as the Commune of Florence permitted Jews to practice banking since the community felt they could trust the Jewish bankers more so than Christian counterparts. The Jewish communities fate was tied to the Medici family who, when they were in power, protected the Jewish community. However, numerous times, depending on who was in power, the Medici family was expelled until a financial agreement was made and they along with the Jewish community were permitted to remain. In 1537, Jacob Abravanel, a Sephardic Jew, convinced Cosimo de’Medici to guarantee the rights and privileges of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, helping grow the Sephardic Jewish community in Florence. When Cosimo received the title of grande duke of Tuscany, his policies changed and he forced the Jews to wear badges in 1567, closed the borders to non-resident Jews in 1569, shut down Jewish banks in 1570, and established a ghetto in 1571. But Jewish life flourished in the ghetto. Life continued to be rocky for the Jews until 1861 when Florence became part of the kingdom of Italy and Jews were recognized as citizens. The ghetto was destroyed and plans to build a great synagogue were approved in 1872. After eight years, the Great Florence Synagogue was inaugurated. Its architecture is beautiful and has been restored after being damaged by the Nazis and later by a flood in 1966. In its grandeur it is a reflection of the Jewish communities from throughout Europe.

8. KK Bnai Jeshurun - Touro Synagogue

8. KK Bnai Jeshurun (Top) – Touro Synagogue (Bottom)

And now, we move to North America, window #8. On the bottom is the Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island, built in 1658. It is considered to be the oldest synagogue in America. Families came originally from Spain and Portugal via Amsterdam, London, Brazil and Barbados. In 1790, George Washington chose to visit Newport to rally support for the new Bill of Rights. Moses Mendes Seixes, the then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel, was given the honor of addressing the President and spoke to him about the need for Religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Washington took these words and now they are a part of our key statements for our government and First Amendment Rights.

And finally, on the top is K.K. B’nai Yeshurun/Isaac M. Wise/Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio built in 1866. This is where the Reform movement began in the United States. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise was the founder of the Reform movement and together with the foundational German families in Cincinnati, created what would become the center of national Jewish life. The design was such that it mirrored many traditions, but especially the Byzantine/Moorish design that emerged in Germany in the 19th century. It reflected Rabbi Wise’s ideas that this new American Jewish experience would be the next Golden Age of Judaism. It was in this synagogue that Reform Judaism emerged with the establishment of the Hebrew Union College that later merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, today known as the Union for Reform Judaism.

As you can see, from 349 BCE to today, there is a vast history of synagogues spanning almost 2400 years. And it goes even further back from that. Considering our history through the Tanach, the Torah, books of Prophets and Writings, the command is stated as early as in Exodus when God says, “You yourselves have seen that I have talked with you from heaven…An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and shall sacrifice your burnt-offerings…In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.” (Exodus 20:19-23)

From the time we entered into a covenant with God there was always the vision of a Tabernacle, a Mishkan, in which this relationship would grow. This Greek word, synagogue, meaning, gathering or assembly, reflects that which we build. Each of these synagogues in our windows are a reflection of that covenant – to create a gathering place for Jews, the community and God. And we have gone further to define this space as a Beit T’fillah, Beit Midrash, and Beit Kenesset, a House of prayer, study and community. Each of these historical congregations were created under the same rubric; to be houses of prayer, study and community. The synagogues on these windows are not only meant to provide a journey through the history of the Jewish people, but they are meant to help us envision who we want to be today and what we can become tomorrow.

We are a community who takes pride in our history and are invested in teaching it to our children and learning about it for ourselves. We are storytellers, sharing the tales of the Golem and other folk history that has enriched our Jewish tradition and illustrates our historical memory. We are social justice advocates, remembering how others have tried to destroy us in generations past and vowing to never allow it to happen to any other community, not just the Jewish people, ever again. We care about our world and all people and should be committed to speaking out against injustice and for equality. We are visionaries for the future. In exploring new lands, new ideas and yes, new frontiers, we hope to ensure a vibrant future for Judaism and the Jewish people for generations to come. For if we don’t, this beautiful space we have created will only be that, a beautiful space.

As we gaze into the windows of Judaism’s past, we must look carefully through them on into the future – it is up to us to ensure that there is a Jewish future, for if we don’t then no one else will. May our eyes behold the images of the past and our hearts be driven to visions of the future and may we, together, fulfill a covenant that began on a mountain in the middle of the desert.

Amen

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