Where Was the First Synagogue?

Image: A gathering of Jews pray and read Torah. Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Sarah Schechter leads Jewish services, at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq.  Public Domain.

Where was the first synagogue?

If you want the answer from archaeology, the answer is, we don’t know. We have some ruins and inscriptions from the 3rd century before the common era that are definitely from synagogues, but it’s entirely possible that synagogues existed for a long time before that.

However, that’s only one way of looking for the answer.

A traditional way to look for Jewish answers about history is to look in Jewish texts. Then the answer appears very early in our story, in the book of Leviticus:

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble all the congregation at the door of the Tent of Meeting.” – Leviticus 8: 1-3

Various artists have pictured the camp of Israel in the wilderness following the descriptions in the Torah. This image by Johann Christoph Weigel (1654-1725) is fairly typical and consistent with the text:

Weigel

At the very center of the picture stands the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites are camped all around it, organized by tribes. The Levites are closest to the Tent of Meeting (orange squares on three sides of it) and the blue, green, yellow and pink squares are the camps of the other tribes. Look back to the center: the area in front of the Tent of Meeting is an open space. That is where God has commanded Moses to “assemble all the congregation” for the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel.

The words here are also significant: the words for “assemble” and “congregation” are words we still use in the names of congregations: “Kahal” (in a verb form here) and “Adat.”

The first synagogues were not buildings. They were assemblies of Jews, brought together by a common worshipful purpose.  This is different from the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting, and later, the Temple: those were places of sacrifice, and parts of them were only open to the Levites and the priests.

Another example of a gathering of Jews that certainly looks like a synagogue:

All the people gathered themselves together as one person in the open space before the Water Gate [in Jerusalem.] They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly [kahal], which was made up of men and women and those who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And the ears of the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. – Nehemiah 8: 1-3

This is an account of the first public Torah reading on record. Jews still gather to read Torah from the Scroll; we gather to read from the sefer Torah, the “book of the Law,” in either a permanent synagogue building or in a place that for that time is designated for the purpose.

The essential element is not the building – the essential element is the gathering of Jews. This has been true from the very earliest days.

 

As a practical matter, most congregations choose to build or purchase a synagogue building. That allows for safe storage of Torah scrolls and books and for learning space. It is also convenient to have these things in a dedicated space. But it is important that we remember that the congregation is not the building; the physical plant is not nearly as important as the people who gather there.

So where is the world’s oldest synagogue? The Mediterranean is dotted with ruins of ancient synagogues. However, the oldest synagogue isn’t a building. A synagogue happens whenever and wherever Jews gather to study and pray.

 

 

 

The Isolated Jew: What to Do?

A reader asked: How can I enhance my Jewish life when there are few Jews living nearby?

Being Jewish can be pretty lonely, especially at holiday times of the year. That’s true even in cities with a significant Jewish population. But what are the resources for a Jew in a small town or in the country? After all, much of Jewish life is experienced in community – what is an isolated Jew to do?

Here are some possibilities for you. None of them is “one size fits all” – your situation is individual, and your solution will be individual too.

Is there a synagogue nearby? Your best hope for Jewish community is a nearby synagogue. “Nearby” may be 50 miles away (or more!) but let’s be honest – how far is it to the doctor’s office or the “good” shopping center? It may be worth the investment of your time and money to connect with those Jews, even if you can only make it to services or events once a month.

“Yes, but…” …They are too goyishe, too frum, too expensive, totally inaccessible, too expensive, too whatever.  OK, so they really are not for you… or the nearest congregation is 150 miles away.  Let’s keep going.

Start a chavurah. Is there one other Jewish household in your area? Invite them over to Shabbat dinner. Get to know them. Find out if they know of any other Jewish households. If so, invite those folks to the next Shabbat dinner, maybe next month. Keep it going. See if anyone wants to have a Chanukah party. See if anyone is interested in a book group or a bowling team.

A chavurah also works if you have a local congregation but there is a barrier of some kind. Are there other disabled Jews in your area? LGBTQ Jews? Jews that the synagogue Jews don’t recognize as Jewish? Whatever it is, make the community you need. Many great congregations started this way: Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf started in 1953 because Deaf Jews were not recognized as Jewish adults by any of the congregations in the Los Angeles area. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco started because LGBTQ Jews were unwelcome elsewhere in town back in 1977. Neither started with a rabbi or a building. They began with individual Jews who wanted community.

But what if there is no other Jewish household?

What about online Jewish community? Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope this helps. Every Jew deserves a Jewish community. Sometimes we have to make our own community, but Jews have been doing that for centuries. I have total faith that you can do it, too.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.

Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.

Rabbi Mates-Muchin started the service with Shehecheyanu, the blessing for extraordinary moments. We celebrated Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. We celebrated King v Burwell, in which SCOTUS affirmed the Affordable Care Act. And on the side of anguish, we prayed for those who are mourning in South Carolina, as the funerals begin for the nine people murdered in Emanuel AME Church. Many of us had been deeply moved by President Obama’s eulogy for State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.

Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.

And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)

Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.

Bring What You Can, Be Who You Are

V’a’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham. –Exodus 25:8

Make me a sanctuary, and I will live in the midst of them.

These words appear in and on many synagogues. Usually they get a fancier translation, something along the lines of “Build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” or some such. I think there’s something to be gained from the rawer version: Make it, and I will live with you.

It appears in the early part of Parashat Terumah, when God tells Moses to ask for a free-will offering. The offering will be used to build the mishkan, the portable Ark of the Covenant, and its setting, the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. He asked specifically for a list of things I would never imagine to be in the possession of runaway slaves in the midst of the Sinai Wilderness:

These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze;  blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and sea mammal skins; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense;  and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. – Exodus 25: 3-7

Other writers will offer you theories on why the Israelites had these things. But for a moment, let’s just focus on the fact that much of this list is beyond precious and rare. The “blue, purple, and scarlet” dyes were so scarce that they were reserved for royalty even centuries later. I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “Uh-oh. I don’t think we’ve got half this stuff.”

Moses transmitted the message to the people: here’s what we need. And Am Yisrael delivered. The people of Israel came through, bringing precious metals, precious dyestuffs, rare leathers, precious gems.  That’s the miracle of this parashah: God asked, and the people stepped up. The rest of the parashah talks about the people bringing such a pile of loot that it turned out to be more than was really needed.

Today we face an analogous situation. “Oy gevalt, how will American Jewry make it to the next generation?” say the pundits and pollsters. They follow this statement with a list of what the people aren’t bringing. Jews are intermarrying! Jews don’t learn Hebrew! Jews don’t come to synagogue! Oy gevalt!”

But here’s what I learn from Parashat Terumah: Look at what Am Yisrael, the Jewish People are bringing. Many American Jews are intermarrying, yes, but a significant percentage of them are raising their children as Jews. We are in the midst of an avalanche of conversions, people bringing themselves to us, jumping through hoops to become part of us, anxious to participate and build a Jewish future. Jews are bringing innovation to the table, too: Internet learning, online services, nontraditional minyanim, a thousand interesting experiments, any one of which may turn out to be durable for the next ten generations.

Perhaps our next tabernacle is not a holy place hung with linen and studded with precious gems, not a fabulous modern building. Perhaps it is a gathering of rare and lovely souls, a gathering of Jews themselves, bringing heads and hearts and hands. I know that when I am in the midst of Jews celebrating a holiday, or studying together, or doing social justice work, I can feel the presence of God, living in the midst of us.

Let us bring all that we are and see what we can build together.

New Jewish Disability Resource Online!

Neil and Denise Jacobson and I, pausing long enough for a photo. Image by Linda Burnett.
Neil and Denise Jacobson and I, pausing long enough for a photo. Image by Linda Burnett.

What untapped resources are hidden in plain sight in your temple membership?

My friend and teacher Neil Jacobson has a bold vision for congregations. He says it so well that I am not going to try to paraphrase. Just watch: Ask Not What the Temple Can Do for People with Disabilities, Ask What People with Disabilities Can Do for the Temple. This video is as un-sappy a take on disability as you will ever experience.

It’s part of a new website co-sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The website is designed for use by Reform congregations, but it is so well done that I hope it gets broad use both within the movement and beyond it as well.

Many good Jews want to observe the mitzvot concerning blindness and deafness:

Do not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God. – Leviticus 19:14

Too often these mitzvot are approached from the Dark Ages, when a cheresh (deaf person) seemed incapable of communication, and more recently, when people with disabilities were seen as objects of pity or as heroes. In fact, people with disabilities are first and foremost people with gifts to give and talents to share.  We are human beings, made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.

Shake off the Dark Ages! Stop wasting the gifts of members in your congregation! If you want to learn about disability, if you are part of a congregation that wants to make better use of its resources, if you want to observe the mitzvot addressed in Leviticus 19:14, check out DisabilitiesInclusion.org!

 

The Barriers In our Hearts

disabilityWhen congregations talk about becoming more accessible to people with disabilities, there’s an underlying assumption that the congregation has something to offer to the person with a disability.

There’s the usual stuff, of course: the rabbi, the religious school, somewhere to go on Yom Kippur. But if the congregation is full of people who don’t know how to be friends with a person who looks different from themselves and who don’t care to learn, what’s the point? That congregation can have all the ramps and hearing devices imaginable, but it will never be a congregational home for Jews with disabilities.

So if we want to make our congregations into places that are truly welcoming, that do not put stumbling blocks before the blind, then we have to work on our attitudes as well as our architecture. And face it, it’s easier to talk about architecture. Stairways don’t get offended when someone says they have to change; people often do.

A question for every one of us (me included) to ask ourselves periodically: among the people not like myself at my congregation, whom do I know well? By “well,” I mean: Have we ever done anything together outside of the synagogue building? Have I ever given them help, or asked for their help? Have they been invited to my home, or I to theirs? Or make it even more basic: do I greet them by name when I see them on Shabbat? Do I smile?

Often, when challenged about such a thing, we feel defensive and embarrassed: “I don’t know what to say” or “I can’t understand her speech.” If the person has a mental illness or developmental disability, or looks very different, we may feel afraid and be embarrassed to admit it. This is a good reason to reach out to clergy, to say, look, I want to be more welcoming of so-and-so, but I haven’t a clue how to talk to him, or what to say to her, or I feel scared of him.  Your rabbi can probably give you some ideas about where to start and will likely be delighted that you have asked.

(Note: as someone pointed out to me recently, there are situations where interaction itself is unwelcome, as with autism. Again, temple staff and clergy can help you figure out what’s welcome and what isn’t.)

Every person brings something unique to our communities. At my home congregation, people with disabilities include a published author, an educator, a bank vice president, a rabbi, and several other people with interesting jobs and/or life stories. People who are different from me in other ways (older, younger, have funny accents not like my funny accent, different income or education level) are also fascinating once I stretch a little to meet them. All of them bring their own gifts to give to the congregation as members. Each of them brings a lot to the table as a potential friend, too.

February is Jewish Disabilities Month. We can look at that as a month to make ourselves more aware of barriers in our synagogues and institutions. Or we can look at it as a month to make ourselves more aware of the barriers in our hearts. Either way, this is the month to remove the stumbling blocks.

What if I Can’t Get to Synagogue?

Isolated House by Hugh Venables
“Isolated House” by Hugh Venables

Location and/or illness make it difficult for some Jews to get to synagogue. How in that situation are we to access Jewish community?

First, the offline solution: If you live in a city that has synagogues, but you just can’t access them, call the synagogue. Express your interest in being a part of their community. Ask to talk to the rabbi, and explain your situation. I can’t promise you that every synagogue will have outreach to shut-ins, but I can promise you that rabbis care about the Jews in their neighborhood. Understand that options may be limited for non-members. However, it is always worth contacting them.

Years ago, before I became a rabbi, my rabbi called me and asked if I would be willing to visit a widow in the congregation who had agoraphobia. Her husband had been her major tie to the world, and now that he was gone, my rabbi was worried about her. I began visiting Anne (not her real name) once a week and doing her grocery shopping. We developed a friendship. Later, when my schedule changed and I could not be as reliable for shopping, I went back to the rabbi and told him. He found someone else to visit, but Anne and I stayed in touch. (Note that this required a large enough community and a willing pool of volunteers; not every synagogue will be able to deliver on something like this.)

Second, the Internet raises many more opportunities for Jewish connections. Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue, or if you are confined to home by illness or disability:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope that whatever your situation, and whether it is a short-term challenge or a long-term situation, you can find a way to connect Jewishly. Certainly I appreciate your readership and look forward to conversation in the comments on this blog!