Monday, September 21, 2015

Church Pews

What follows is the letter I sent to my congregation about our decision to celebrate two of our High Holiday services at St. Dominic Catholic Church.  Our synagogue building cannot accommodate the larger numbers who attend these services.  I am proud of my congregation for embracing this decision.  My words proved true. We found our services deeply meaningful.  I look forward to our observance of Yom Kippur.

Sometimes practical challenges illustrate important philosophical principles.  Our decision to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Morning services at St. Dominic is such a case.

Judaism teaches that the place is secondary to the moment.  We sanctify time rather than space.  It is far more important when we gather rather than where. What transforms ordinary days in the calendar into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that we join together as a community.  What matters is that we sing our prayers together.  What matters is that we learn Torah.  These are the acts that sanctify the day.  This is the Jewish principle that ensured our survival after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.   Regardless of where we find ourselves we can celebrate our sacred days.

When formulating this principle the ancient rabbis never of course imagined our current situation, that we might celebrate our holiest of days in a church.  How could the victims of oppression imagine such a circumstance?  We, however, live in a unique age and in a unique country.

When we realized that our synagogue’s sanctuary, as well as CW Post’s hall, would be unable to accommodate our greater numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings I approached my colleague and friend Reverend Kevin Smith.  He immediately offered the use of his church’s auditorium-style sanctuary.  In addition he offered to allow us to cover the large cross and move some of the church’s sacred objects to help us create a Jewish atmosphere.  He is an extraordinarily kind and generous man. 

We will not be able to cover every Christian symbol, especially those in the church’s beautiful stained glass windows.  We will instead transform this place by our songs and our prayers.  While it is not a synagogue it is a house built for prayer.  I have led services in many different locations and can tell you that it is far better to join together in prayer in a place that is intended for that purpose.  My heart is filled with gratitude by the generosity of my Christian neighbors.

I recognize that some might be uncomfortable singing Jewish prayers and celebrating Jewish holidays in a church.  I understand your feelings.  We will of course be in our own synagogue for Rosh Hashanah Evening, Second Day Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur Evening and Yom Kippur Afternoon services. 

I choose to see this unusual circumstance as an unexpected blessing.  I will, like every High Holidays, be smiling and singing, praying and even dancing.  The prayers and songs will continue to uplift us on these days, regardless of where we sit.  It is these days that we hold to be most sacred.  I have every confidence you will say to yourself, in the synagogue as well as the church, “I have never heard a more beautiful Avinu Malkeinu in all my life.”     

Perhaps you might also say, “What an extraordinary country I live in!” Here, in the United States, it is natural that a church and its leaders would reach out to a synagogue and say, “Come and observe your holiest of days in our sanctuary.”

I choose to see blessings.

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