August 31, 2006
Behind the Bimah
In "Teaching Your Children About God," Rabbi David Wolpe suggests taking our children to a sanctuary when services are not being conducted to give them a sense of the
I love this idea. I have been in my own sanctuary at odd hours, and even if I am there for "business reasons" -- taking pictures for a new synagogue brochure, for example -- I feel different in the sanctuary than I do in any other room. Seeing the eternal light, knowing the Torah is sleeping inside the ark, gives me the feeling of being on holy ground.
But here's a variation on Wolpe's idea -- let your children stand in awe in front of the bimah, but then take them behind the bimah. Raise the curtain and demystify the sanctuary. By doing so you help them feel comfortable.
Many of my adult friends still feel uncomfortable in synagogue. To them, it is a place where you have to go -- where you have to sit still and say meaningless prayers in a difficult language, where you have to listen to lectures from a rabbi who you do not know personally and are, perhaps, a little intimidated by. No wonder they only attend services twice a year.
I was extremely fortunate as a child. My family "raised the curtain" for me. And they did so by doing two things.
The first is unique to my family -- my uncle is Cantor Saul Hammerman, who is now cantor emeritus of Beth El in Baltimore. Before my parents affiliated with our Philadelphia synagogue, they would take us to Baltimore to be with our extended family for holidays. I remember sitting in Beth El, an imposing synagogue to anyone, but even more so to a little girl. I looked up at the enormous ark and wondered how anyone could ever reach the Torahs.
I listened to the brilliant Rabbi Jacob Agus, and wondered how old I would be when I would understand his sermons. And I listened to the chazzan -- so imposing in his white robes and his big white hat with the pompom on top (oh, how my sister and I loved that hat). When he sang, his voice wafted over me -- both beautiful and frightening in its power and passion.
But, then, during the Torah procession, something would happen. My sister and I would scramble to the end of the aisle to kiss the Torah, and as the procession passed the cantor would wink at us and flick his tallit so that the fringes brushed our cheeks. We would giggle, and the imposing chazzan would once again become our beloved Uncle Saul.
At other times, Uncle Saul took us to his office and even showed us where his robes hung and how he entered and exited the bimah. Those special visits made the synagogue seem less foreboding, but no less magical.
The second thing my parents did was be involved with our synagogue. Their involvement inspired my own. I remember being on the bimah with the choir, making macaroni in the kitchen between tutoring the younger students and waiting for my own evening classes to begin, and even raking leaves at my rabbi's house during our Kadima "Rent-A-Rake" fundraiser. This involvement, this ownership, made synagogue a comfortable place.
And so, the very first thing I did when my husband and I joined our shul was to volunteer. I didn't like the feeling of entering the synagogue and not knowing what it was like behind the bimah. By volunteering, I was able to feel at home. I did this for me and I did it for my children.
This is a gift every Jewish parent can give to her child. Not all families have an Uncle Saul, but everyone can volunteer. Synagogues desperately need lay leaders. It is so easy to get involved -- just call and ask how you can help. And then? Well, you will have raised the curtain, you will learn that a synagogue is not run on some intimidating magic, but by people you know and care about. Synagogue will no longer be a frightening Oz, but rather a welcoming home.
Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released "Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat" (HarperPerennial) is founder and editor of www.modernjewishmom.com. The site offers projects, recipes, advice and ideas to help Jewish moms make Jewish homes.