#rsgrows: A Building Expansion Fueled by Purpose

It has been so exciting to see the expansion go up here at Rodeph Shalom.  And now here we are, almost complete, with the May 17 Dedication happening this month!  In last weekend’s Sunday seminar, our expansion chairperson Michael Hauptman taught that the master planning for the space began in 1992!

The meaning of our new addition is certainly not limited to bricks and mortar.  The power of the renovation and expansion has been that, every step of the way, our leadership’s decisions have been mission-driven, fueled by our vision of the people and purpose who will fill its space.  Not once has this congregation set out to create a museum; this is a center for living Judaism, where we honor the past, celebrate the present, and shape the future of Jewish life in Philadelphia.

And so it made sense when, about a year ago, a congregant suggested we consider a Jewish text, that might appear on the external Broad Street wall.  What kind of message would we want to represent who we are, to the world that passes by each day?  Consider: what message might move you?  Initially, my favorite quotation was: “To love another person is to see the face of God,” but my fellow clergy members reminded me, that’s from Les Miserables.

When we asked the congregation to submit ideas, we collected a variety of powerful Jewish texts–several of them were from this week’s Torah portion.  We brought these ideas to a couple of Torah Study sessions and Officers meetings to interpret them in depth.

Participants in these study sessions identified helpful criteria, which included such guidelines as:

We need a text that speaks to the neighborhood. We need a text that speaks to us. We need a text that is simple enough to capture quickly in a speeding car. We need a text complex enough to remain interesting to the person who walks past day after day. We need a text that avoids explicitly mentioning God–too potentially alienating. We need a text that explicitly mentions God–in order to distinguish ourselves as a spiritual institution.  With such clarity of approach in mind, three Jewish texts emerged.

The first of those final 3 texts we considered, although not the final selection, comes from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, in the part of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code. Love your neighbor as yourself.  This text spoke to many people because of its focus on relationship with our neighbors.  From social justice to multi-faith community relations to our immediate Mt. Vernon neighbors, the notion that we should love our neighbor is central to the mission of our congregation.  Additionally, the text makes its point in an interesting way.  How would the message be different if it simply read: Love your neighbor?…  Love your neighbor as yourself tells us that’s how much we love our neighbor.  As much as we love ourself.  There is no difference between you and me.

The second of those final texts we considered is found in the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Book of Genesis.  After Jacob sees the angels climbing up and down, he exclaims: G was in this place and I, I did not know it.  Jacob’s text moved us because it captures both faith and uncertainty.  Sometimes we sense God’s presence.  Othertimes we are uncertain of God’s presence.  And sometimes, we don’t know God’s presence at all.  Ours is a congregation for the faithful, the seeker and the doubter, and Jacob’s text seemed to open the door for us all.  Still, it was not the final selection.

The final text, the one that emerged as a clear favorite in Torah Study and among our leadership, and will be inscribed on the external Broad Street wall of our new sacred space, comes from Pirke Avot, known as the ethics of our sages.  The text reads: Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom — Love peace and pursue it.  Love peace and pursue it seems to beautifully, and we hope timelessly, capture what it means to be a vibrant Reform congregation on North Broad Street.  When we reach out to our neighbors to join hands in the work of social justice with POWER, the Farmer’s Market, tutoring students, we are loving peace and pursuing it.  When we join in this sanctuary to find connection with community, we are loving peace and pursuing it.  When we gather in prayer to turn inward to our souls, we are loving peace and pursuing it.  This week, when our hearts break for Nepal and for Baltimore, and we are moved to respond with compassion, with peaceful demonstration or with tzedakah, we are loving peace and pursuing it.

And then there’s the meaningful connection of the Hebrew.  Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom.  Rodeph shalom, embedded in the Hebrew, reminds us that the universal notion to love peace and pursue it, in this text is at its heart, our very own identity.

In the next couple of weeks we will prepare to dedicate our glorious new space.  Its magnificent design will be acclaimed in architecture magazines and will make us proud. Without the right design and expansion, our congregation could not continue to move towards fulfilling its potential; yet, we know, our leadership and our membership knows, the golden limestone and translucent glass are but tools.  Bricks and mortar are not the ends, but the means for our purpose.  And our purpose is to create profound connections, expanding and deepening our reach, that we might fill our new sacred space. The elimination of our fence will welcome the stranger.  The glass walls will help us to embrace the guest.  The accessibility will support those with mobility challenges.  The exposed exterior to our original building will root us in our past.  The courtyard will root us in nature.  The Jewish text on our wall will root us in Torah.

Our social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook bears the hashtag #rsgrows.  Fueled by purpose, may RS grow. May we grow in our impact.  May we grow in our reach.  May we grow in our connection to God, Torah and Israel.  May we grow in our souls.