If you had told me February 29 was the last time I would attend services for who knows how many weeks – months really – I would have stopped and taken it all in. I would have stayed and talked with friends until I was kicked out of the building. I would have wandered the social hall and re-read the plaques and historical info on the walls. I would have gone into the sanctuary, closed my eyes, and listened to the prayers that have become so familiar even if I still don’t know what they mean. Always trying to make the best of any situation, I’ve decided Saturday morning is the perfect time to starting learning the meanings of those prayers while my rabbi leads services online.
Using the Siddur Lev Shalem, I started at the beginning. Reading each page, then reading the commentary on the sides. The first thing that struck me was the prayer to say upon entering the synagogue. A prayer I didn’t know existed. I don’t think it would have even registered as important before entering the synagogue became something we can’t do. We are a people who have a history of survival regardless of being able to pray together. So why does the building itself feel so important?
I’ve been a member of Beth Jacob for a little over 15 years and if you had told me then I’d be missing the physical building of the synagogue I would have flat out laughed. It was still the synagogue I was a member of, but not my synagogue. When my oldest was born, it became a place to get a break from parenting, a chance to talk to adults. I started attending regularly for them. To give them a sense of community. Ten years ago, I would have agreed about missing the community of people but shrugged in disinterest at the idea of the importance of the physical building.
It would be easy to say I enter the building as an individual and that is the place where I become a member of the community. Yet, these last nine weeks have already shown that’s not specifically true either. We have people from various states now actively attending our morning minyan online and reading Torah on Saturday. Something that’s never been an option before for friends and family who have moved away from Minnesota. One friend commented to me that this has allowed her to ‘shul hop’ and not have to decide which B’nai mitzvah she’d attend when there are multiple on the same day. Yet week after week we talk about when we’ll all be able to be together again.
I wonder when will be the first time we can open up for services again. How will it go? Small numbers of people? Will we need to decide who does and doesn’t get to enter like many workplaces are doing? Two weeks ago would have been our annual fundraiser, and I found myself driving out the synagogue just to say hello. I sat on the bench outside in the sunshine, enjoying the birds and fresh air, but also allowing myself some grief that I wasn’t inside with the hum and bustle of a large event.
We might not be holding full services, but the building isn’t closed. There’s someone in the office answering the phone and dealing with mail. There’s someone in the kitchen putting together kiddush kits for us to pick up so we can still feel connected as we eat lunch together over Zoom on Saturdays. What is the state of your building right now? Who are the people taking care of all our beloved buildings while we’re not in them? How are we honoring those taking care of our buildings now? How will we honor them when we return?
It may never go back to exactly what it was before, and maybe that’s okay. I also can’t wait to get back. Whatever motivates you to set aside that time Friday night, Saturday morning, or both; there’s something so special about spending time in the same space with people who have all set aside their everyday lives to acknowledge our shared religion, culture, values, or even just friendships and a desire to have a place of community and belonging.