In our sanctuaries, too many are left feeling unwelcomed


Exodus 38:21–40:38

Exodus 30:11–16

II Kings 12:1-17

“Build Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in your midst …” (Exodus 25:8). When God envisions the Sanctuary (Mishkan in Hebrew) that Moses and the people will build, God wants an intimate structure that draws the people close to one another and to God in two ways.

First, the Mishkan’s physical presence gives us a focus for God-consciousness, for our awareness of the holy in our lives. While God’s presence fills the whole world, our ability to perceive that presence is filtered through our senses. As a result, having a tangible structure in our midst gives our eyes and ears and touch something to grasp, something to focus on — regularly reminding us of God’s intimate presence.

Second, the rituals of sacrifice themselves draw us to an intimate awareness of God. In Hebrew, the sacrifices are     from the root “krv,” which means to draw close. Sacrificial practices would be better translated as drawing closer rituals.

Synagogues are often called “Mishkan Maat,” a small version of this desert Sanctuary. As a result, the intimate intention of the Mishkan should be reflected in the way we envision and construct synagogues for our own communities today.

Ron Wolfson, director of Synagogue 3000, has been urging synagogues to put relationships at the core for many years now. He points out that synagogues thrive not on programs but on relationships. People go to an event because they are invited, because they have someone to sit with or someone they want to see. Pirkei Avot teaches: When friends sit together, God’s presence dwells in their midst. We find God in the community.

Often, when people enter a synagogue, they are never welcomed. I have visited synagogues in other communities as a young family — the desired demographic everywhere — and had not one person so much as say hello. In one local synagogue, a man was visiting for an extended business contract after having lost his son a few months previously. He attended nearly every service, Shabbat and weekday, for months. Only the rabbi and two other people so much as said hello. And we wonder why synagogues face challenges.

I have urged my own community to make welcoming, reaching out to others, part of our sacred mission. We ought to spend 10 minutes of every Kiddush, oneg or other event greeting newcomers, forging new connections and friendships.

We have tried to change our custom when we greet one another. We now begin with, “I am David, glad to meet you. What is your name?” In this way, I take away the embarrassment of someone else forgetting my name, and invite them immediately into conversation.

Wolfson often tells the anecdote of visiting a synagogue in the Midwest. He arrived right on time, and sat down. Later, a man walked into this 500-seat sanctuary with maybe 20 seats taken and said, “You are sitting in my place.” Imagine this is the first time someone has come into a synagogue. They are told in an empty room: There is no space for you here.

Wolfson asks: What should the person have said? “Shabbat shalom! Would you sit with me?” Then the person is welcomed and made to feel there is a place of welcome in the community. The regular still gets to sit in his seat while making the newcomer feel like an honored guest.

When we see ourselves as the surviving remnant, we build walls and our communities shrink. We seal off what should be open. By contrast, when we see ourselves as forging a sacred space, as remembering as essential openness to every soul, our tent can expand in limitless directions.

“Build Me a Sanctuary …” That present tense commandment never ends.

We no longer have the Mishkan itself. Instead, we have our community as a focus for holiness, as a place in which we find God. Let us continually strive to build a Sanctuary in which God can truly dwell.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].