9th Elul 17th August 2021
On this day in 1267 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides/Ramban) arrived in Jerusalem having been exiled from Aragon after the Disputation of Barcelona. Tradition has it that he founded a synagogue once he arrived, having allegedly found only two Jews living openly there and a ruined domed building which he reclaimed. (This story is in a document purporting to be a letter to his son, though it is a deeply problematic text in many ways).
He is alleged to have written
“Many are [Jerusalem’s] forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all. … There are ten men who meet on the Sabbaths they hold services at their home. … Even in its destruction, it is an exceedingly good land.
The story goes on that Nachmanides decided to rebuild the Jewish community by rebuilding the synagogue as a place where they could come together to pray, that he brought back scrolls that had been hidden in Shechem, and that in just three weeks, in time for the services of Rosh Hashanah, there was a Jewish community to pray in the recreated synagogue.
One should add that Nachmanides was seventy two years old at the time he made Aliyah and then rebuilt a Jewish community.
Whether this ancient synagogue really was revitalised by Nachmanides is at the least questionable, but the premise -that a synagogue builds a Jewish community as much as a Jewish community builds a synagogue- is an important one.
Many people question whether they should join a synagogue. Often the questions are framed in a transactional mindset – “what do I get from paying my dues?” Rarely do we ask “what does my supporting a synagogue give to enhance my own values?”
Rabbi Paul Kipnes wrote after reflecting on the question he was asked by a former member “How does my being a synagogue member make my life better? This is his response:
I thought about her question a lot and struggled. I’m wondering how YOU would answer. My answer was:
Depends on what you mean by “better”.
If you mean physically healthier, it won’t… Join a gym.
If you mean more beautiful physically, it won’t, go to Nordstroms or a make up artist or…
If you mean richer, it won’t, get a higher paying job.
If you mean more mentally stable, it won’t, go to a shrink.
If you mean more knowledgeable, it won’t, take a class at Pierce.
If you mean… Then go …
But being part of a synagogue allows you to be part of a larger community… of YOUR people.
Being part of a synagogue means promulgating values that your tradition, and you, hold dear.
Being part of a community is like ensuring that your “room” is still there even if you go away to college. You can always come home. Or if you are an adult, you can not show up but we are still here.
Being part of a community teaches future generations that being a Jew matters, even if you aren’t a power user of the synagogue at the moment.
Being part of a community means that there will always be high holy day services for you and the community.
…That you have a place to turn if you are in need.
…That there is always Torah in your community
…That you have a spiritual home.
…That your values are played out through social justice
…That you have a place to go to sing Mi Shebeirach…
…That Israel has an advocate in the community.
…That you take responsibility for the next generation, like the previous one did for yours.
Its not about money, because everyone can join regardless of wealth or lack of money. Its about commitment to community.
We live in a world that speaks of consumer values. What do I get if I pay. Judaism is a people/religion/nation/culture/ethnicity/more that transcends that, asking what will being part of a community do for OUR world, ALL people, OUR people, OUR community. That’s how I think and its how I want my children to think.
If it is how you want to think, come home. If not, home will still be here for you if you ever decide you want to come home.
(Oh, and Judaism, synagogue and community can make you more beautiful because you feel better about yourself when you are spiritually centred. You will be richer because you will have enriched your life and those of others. You will be smarter because you will be able to partake in 5000 years of Jewish knowledge. You will be mentally more stable because you will have adjusted the balance of the mind, body, spirit. Of course all this presupposes that not only do you join but you also connect in and come.)
So, that’s my answer. The shofar’s in your court…