The Leviticus:8 Project
But if one cannot afford the equivalent, he shall be presented before the priest, and the priest shall assess him; the priest shall assess him according to what the vower can afford. Leviticus 27:8
As every older generation does, my generation wonders how things can be so different with younger generations. I know some of things I did drove my elders crazy. During my first year of seminary, I was outraged that the pristine building in which my classes were held was suddenly sprouting heavy brass plaques engraved with the names of wealthy donors.
(In fact, I remember a worker entering a class in progress with such a plaque and a huge drill to anchor it into the concrete block walls. Our teacher, a very gentle and modest rabbi, said, “Excuse me, we are conducting a class in here.” The worker responded, “Oh, that’s okay, you won’t bother me.” And with that, he revved up the drill and proceeded to hang the plaque.)
I took matters into my own hands and used Post-It notes to put up my own plaques ahead of the formal dedication. I am not certain what Ed and Trixie Norton had dedicated in honor of Ralph and Alice Kramden, or exactly who dedicated the urinals, but they were all discovered and removed. Well, all but one: The Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Memorial Wall Socket.
My elders were not amused. The new building was a big deal – a milestone in the school’s maturity and a leap forward from the repurposed hotel that had served as classrooms and offices for many years.
Not so many years later, I was interviewing with a congregation anxious to move from its long-time building to a growing community that was miles away from its graying population. I was approached about taking the position, but I declined. I did not want to begin my tenure by taking on a construction project, especially one that left devoted members behind. (They built it without me.) But revenge was in the cosmos. It wasn’t so many years until the congregation I served grew to the point of needing renewed facilities.
Brick-and-mortar was very much the measure of success for the generation of my parents and their parents. The synagogue of my youth had arrived when it stopped meeting in the Oddfellows Hall and Methodist church and moved into its own classroom-and-auditorium building.
For my generation, renewal and renovation of existing facilities seems to have been our physical focus. The synagogue I served boasted an award-winning design which was eliminated when we needed more room in the sanctuary and pews that had not been salvaged from a local movie theater decades before. We saw it as an opportunity to leave our mark as we met our needs.
This past week I had occasion to speak with a younger rabbi who serves in an historic congregation in a very old building. It has been renovated and repurposed as best as possible to accommodate the changing population of the neighborhood – young couples, some with kids, and older individuals who no longer have or never had kids. He described to me the task of building to a new paradigm. “Membership” is a term in certain disfavor, and “dues” sounds too rigid. In particular, younger people, who are often reluctant to be joiners, are encouraged to contribute what they can afford as a way to ease into engaging as community members (rather than a la carte consumers), just like in the verse above.
For a long time, the American Jewish community seemed to practice an adage that later became famous in a movie: If you build it, they will come. And for a while, it worked. Belonging to a synagogue was mostly a value in the Jewish community, and it was not so much whether you joined a synagogue or temple, but which one you chose. As synagogues became centers of comprehensive learning and activities, those large halls were redesigned to be more flexible, and another generation arrived, perhaps not in the same numbers, but more frequently for a wider variety of reasons.
Now, as younger leaders try to create intentional communities, the focus is not on a building. These independent groups, like the growing congregation in the old building, are willing to make do with what is available. They meet in church basements, community rooms, libraries, or even apartments of various participants. The choice to use what is available and affordable has removed the role of architecture and decorating from the worship experience. (And sometimes even more: one very successful group meets in a church sanctuary, surrounded by iconography.)
Some groups will want a place to call their own and others just a place to call home. No matter which, it is a pretty fair bet that a generation will arise with a different perspective and a new way to address it. The leaders at the time will have to assess what they all can afford. It will be considered equivalent.
This column brings to a conclusion the Leviticus:8 Project. All past offerings may be found at www.jackmoline.com. Beginning soon, watch for the new weekly series, The Numbers:13 Project, which will continue through calendar year 2019.