If These Walls Could Talk: 90 Years in the Sanctuary

Delivered by Rabbi Maderer Rosh Hashanah morning

Some of you may have known one of Rodeph Shalom’s oldest, long-time members, Floss Feder, of blessed memory.   In my last visit with Floss, who this spring died at the age of 103 ½  ,  I shared with her our plans to celebrate the 90-year anniversary of our sanctuary.  Her face lit up as I asked her: if our sanctuary walls could talk, what would they say?  And she shared with me this funny story she remembered from her Confirmation class of 1930.  She told the story of when Rabbi Louis Wolsey brought them into the sanctuary to point out one of its distinguishing features: the first four words of Psalm 16, verse 8, painted on the tops of the four pendentives, that say “Shviti Adonai lenegdi tamid,” translating: “I set God before me always.”  When Rabbi Wolsey brought Floss’s Confirmation Class into the sanctuary to ask them, “What do the four Hebrew words mean?”  One classmate responded that the four words of the Psalm surely mean: “Thank you, call again!”

If these walls could talk.  If I were to ask you the question, what might you reveal?  For some of you, your relationship with this glorious space is just beginning.  For many of you, these walls could tell the stories of your lives – pages, chapters, volumes — recounts of memories, the joys, the sorrows, the profound connections experienced within them. These walls are something of a Book of Life—that very Book of Life from our High Holy Day prayers.

This morning and throughout these Days of Awe, we recite “V’katvenu b’sefer chayim/Inscribe us in the Book of Life.”  Generations of Jewish commentators have confronted the problematic concept of a Book of Life.  Who, still living with more chapters left to write, found themselves with too few pages?  The injustice of a Book of Life, that we know ends too soon, for too many, turns some of us away from the concept altogether.  

But consider this different perspective on the Book of Life, suggested by some rabbinic scholars, and expressed in poetry, by my colleague Rabbi Joseph Meszler:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters…
Everything you do matters…
For the things that we can change, there is teshuva, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is tefilah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life.”

We cannot determine how many our days will number.  But perhaps it is we who inscribe.  By how we live our days, by the story we create with our actions, we inscribe the Book of Life — for the Holy One of Blessing, not to write, but to read.  Because it is we who are the authors. We inscribe the pages of our personal lives.  We write the chapters of our families.  We fill the volumes with the story of a community.

When the walls of our sanctuary talk, they reveal something of our Book of Life—of the core values and forward thinking that have persisted and have inspired generations.  They tell us volumes about who we are.

From 1928, inscribed on the building’s façade are the words of Isaiah: “This shall be a house of prayer for all people.” The text selection reinforced the charter mission established at our founding in 1795, stipulating: no one shall be turned away because of inability to pay. These walls tell us: this is not only a space of physical beauty, but of spiritual and communal welcome.

Not long after its opening, when the Great Depression hit, the vision was expanded beyond worship and education.  In response to poverty, the synagogue housed a community service project for underprivileged youth. The justice project engaged congregants young and old, including a teen-age Floss Feder who would meet her future husband as they volunteered together. These walls tell us: we welcome the neighborhood into our synagogue.

In the 1970’s, the congregation included a support group for step-parents.  Forward thinking for its time, the community endeavored to serve the needs of blended families. These walls tell us: before we even had a Caring Community, we knew it was our mission to support each other, especially when we feel isolated or vulnerable.

In his 1928 sanctuary dedication sermon, Rabbi Wolsey made clear: we cannot let the past hold us back.  We need to always be moving forward. These walls tell us: this community has always been a place that evolves and renews.

And… sometimes change can take a long time. Some of you may know, it used to be common practice to sit in reserved seats for the High Holy Day. In 1912, members received a letter titled: “About Seats and a New Idea,” proposing the end to assigned seating.  Nearly 70 years later, democratic open seating became regular policy. These walls tell us: the culture of the times influences our practice.

Seventeen years ago, just after 9/11, the Board of Trustees debated whether we should include both an American and an Israeli flag on the bimah.  These walls tell us: we are proud Americans and proud Jews.

Over a decade ago, the sanctuary was restored to its former glory…with a few changes. The new low bimah used on Shabbat and additional aisles do not only provide for egress; rather, they also offer space for the closeness and mingling, that helps to cultivate community. These walls tell us: when it comes to creating profound connections, our work is never complete.

When these walls talk, they reveal something of our Book of Life.  They tell us volumes about who we are, as individuals and as a community.  Reflect on the moments you have experienced in, what one of our past-presidents calls: this physical and spiritual heart of Rodeph Shalom.  What do those moments reveal about what is important to you, and what is important to this congregation?  This year, we will all have opportunities, to share such reflections in connection with our 90th celebration.

I feel blessed to have shared many holy moments with you in these walls.  We have studied Torah, observed Shabbat and holidays, weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, marriage vow renewals, Confirmations, funerals.  We have shared joys and struggles.  We have welcomed dignitaries.  We have welcomed into the sanctuary groups from other religions and our annual Introduction to Judaism class.

When I reflect, I think of the entirety of extraordinary experiences, and I think of the particular moments as well.  Grateful for the families’ permission, I’d like to share one such moment I had the joy of witnessing this year.

Some months ago, one of our Bat Mitzvah students developed a stutter.  Beyond the usual demanding Hebrew preparation, and bravery, to lead the congregation, this Bat Mitzvah was going to require tremendous courage and creativity.

With the support of her parents, and also of her Bar Mitzvah partner’s family, we experimented with headphones and bluetooth.  Just picture it—trial and error, lots of different strategies.  This Bat Mitzvah girl perseveres.  Ultimately, in the middle of the final rehearsal, she says, let’s put the technologies aside and try something else. She realizes co-chanting and co-reading, help to liberate her speech.

She invites me to chant Torah along with her, un-mic’ed.  It works! Then she invites her mother to do the same with her, for her D’var Torah—her sermon. That works too.  But wait, it gets better:  A lot of sensitivity and flexibility is being asked of her Bar Mitzvah partner in this process. His response?  He starts to find prayers, that they had been assigned to recite individually, and he makes suggestions, for parts that the two of them, could instead recite together.  At the end of this rehearsal, both families—who frankly, by this point seem to me, to be as one family—are applauding, cheering these kids on.  During the actual B’nai Mitzvah, this girl pushes forward with courage, and this boy encourages her with smiles, nodding so much his head must have hurt.

These walls tell us: We are part of a congregation of Torah, we are a caring community of profound connections, and our families understand that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah—and Jewish spiritual life in general– is about being a part of something greater than yourself.

At the original dedication of this sanctuary, to a composition that we will hear in a few minutes, the words from Psalm 118 were sung: Pitchu Li shaarey tzedek/ Open for me the Gates of Righteousness, and I will enter in thanks.  Today, too, as we pray, the gates be open to us this Rosh Hashanah, we give thanks.  Nine decades ago, they created this glorious space for the future.  For us.  As we, this year, more deeply learn our history, and honor these 90 years, we will also look forward, and ask ourselves: What will we create for the future?

Mindful that these walls tell us:
this is not only a space of physical beauty, but of spiritual and communal welcome;
we welcome the neighborhood into our synagogue;
we support each other, especially when we feel isolated or vulnerable;
this has always been a place that evolves and renews;
the culture of the times, influences our practice;
we are proud Americans and proud Jews;  and
when it comes to creating profound connections, our work is never complete…

Just imagine, what our walls will say, of the next 90.

Perhaps, in our next chapters we will discover new ways to connect people who are not yet members; we will push the bounds of Hebrew to be more inclusive of transgender; we will find new ways to invite our neighbors into our doors.  Perhaps in our next chapters we will tell our own stories in theater on our bimah, and encounter more of our Judaism through the arts; we will lead with moral courage on the toughest justice dilemmas of our day.  Perhaps in our next chapters, our walls won’t see everything, because we will be bold enough, to reach outside into our city, our region, our nation.

Building on this year’s celebrations, we will be launching an initiative to shape the next era of Rodeph Shalom—to write the next chapter in our congregation’s Book of Life. We already have a vision – creating profound connections.

Our leadership and congregation’s next work, will be to reinterpret that vision for a world where Jewish involvement is optional, and yet meaningseeking and passion for spiritually-driven social justice, abound.  It is our responsibility, to renew that vision for our congregation, and for the Jews and seekers in our region beyond our walls, that we might ensure the past glorious 90 years serve as a foundation for the future of the Jewish people… That we may write our next chapter, for the Holy One to read. For:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…

We write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters…
Everything you do matters…
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life.