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Community Torah

On Making a Makom Kavua

Yom Kippur 5784

In the city of Budapest, the Great Synagogue is on Dohany Street. It is the largest synagogue in Europe, with seats for 3000 people. It has onion domes, stained-glass windows2 and a lot of ornamental detail. The synagogue’s doors open onto a square, a large plaza in the middle of the city.

I visited the Great Synagogue a few years ago, with a professor of Jewish History and Yiddish who grew up in Budapest. Her family, like many other Budapest Jews, had survived World War II in Budapest. Because the Nazis were defeated before deportations to Auschwitz reached the Hungarian capital, fifty to sixty percent of Budapest Jews survived. While many left for Israel or the United States, many, including Szonja’s family, stayed, and survived anew under the intensely anti-religious Soviet and Communist regimes, which forced many Jewish families to hide their Jewish identities. As another Hungarian friend described it to my group, “You couldn’t ask and didn’t know who was Jewish—including your best friends. If it showed up in your file that you were Jewish, you couldn’t get into school, get a job, get a passport.”

Jewish life did continue; an Orthodox community continued practicing despite the extreme marginalization. Services took place in the Great Synagogue year round. On the night of Kol Nidre, Jews, whose identities were hidden, who would never set foot inside the synagogue, would walk in the plaza outside the synagogue. Szonja remembers walking there with Nusi, an elderly Jewish neighbor with whom she was very close. Nusi would take her to the square outside the synagogue on the night of Kol Nidre. When Szonja would see classmates from school walking there, she would discover that they, too, were Jewish.

Imagine the magnificent sanctuary, with most of its seats empty. Imagine the hazan’s voice singing Kol Nidre and flowing out into the plaza. Imagine being a child, holding the hand of a dear elder, taking an evening walk. Hearing the haunting melody. Wondering what is inside the sanctuary. Knowing that it means something to you, but not really knowing what. Seeing your classmates, and understanding that you are connected somehow. Feeling fear, and maybe comfort, curiosity and maybe longing.

Jews have claimed and created Jewish space in so many different contexts, in so many different places, for so many generations. We have done so with life-giving support and solidarity from our non-Jewish neighbors, and we have done so despite extraordinary oppression and violence. This dvar Torah is about making Jewish space in the diaspora, though there is much to learn from what that project has looked like in Israel. In the diaspora, claiming and creating Jewish space has looked like building gorgeous sanctuaries and like putting on tefillin inside a closet. It has looked like separating a piece of bread dough without knowing why and like leaving the corners of a field unharvested. It has looked like laying a white tablecloth on a kitchen table and it has looked like schlepping books and chairs and Torah scrolls, to make home inside a parish hall.

In 2023, our congregation is figuring out how to claim and create Jewish space here, in Jamaica Plain, and specifically in this building. After three years of being in transition, we are making it our makom kavua, our fixed place.

Makom kavua is a concept found in rabbinic literature. It means “a fixed” or “designated place.” One can designate a place for all kinds of purposes—among other things, the Talmud refers to designating a place for meals and also for going to the bathroom. Most commonly, a makom kavua refers to a place designated for prayer.

The practice is distilled this way, in the Shulchan Aruch:

One should establish a place for one's prayer and not change it unless there is a need. And it is not enough to establish a synagogue for oneself in which to pray, rather one must also have an established place within the established synagogue.

In the past three years, Nehar Shalom has had no makom kavua, no fixed place of our own. First we were totally virtual; then we had the office at Green St but couldn’t be inside together. We started gathering here, but only outdoors. We moved indoors but set up the chairs six feet apart. We moved closer together and changed our orientation to enable us to livestream services. We continue to try different set-ups, in an effort to optimize sound, and accessibility, and comfort, and kavod—dignity and respect for the Torah, for our tradition and for each other. With all this moving around, I’ve noticed some things about the value of consistency.

When a space is familiar, it takes less energy to fully arrive in it. A person can more quickly and easily become ready to pray, to sing, connect, to contemplate, to welcome others. Familiarity allows for a focus on purpose.

When a space is consistent, it becomes more clear how to improve it—to make it more welcoming and more accessible. Where would it be helpful to have more signs? How can we help kiddos feel most at home?

When a space is predictable, it enables co-creation and the distribution of responsibility. When the books are kept in the same place each week, a lot of people can set them up. If everyone knows where the extra trash bags are, anyone can take out the trash.

Theaster Gates is an artist, urban planner, and archivist who lives and works on the South Side of Chicago. Much of his work involves turning buildings that have been neglected by the city or by businesses into Black communal spaces for beauty, learning and joy. In an interview about the concept of “place,” he said this:

Place. It’s the ability to locate oneself where one belongs. Place is the manifestation of care. With location alone, you’ve got space. With location and familiarity, intention and love, you’ve got place. I think that the work that I’m involved in is constantly trying to bring intention, beauty and love back to location. (Deem Journal, Issue 4, A Sense of Place)

One of the powerful echoes of the phrase makom kavua is that makom, which translates to “space” or “place,” is also a name for God. If, as Theaster Gates says, place is the ability to locate oneself where one belongs—maybe that’s what God is. God is what makes belonging possible, God is what allows us to locate ourselves—in space, in relationship and in meaning. A midrash asks why we call God “HaMakom” the place, and answers, "because God is the place of the world, but the world is not God’s place. שֶׁהוּא מְקוֹמוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם וְאֵין עוֹלָמוֹ מְקוֹמוֹ

This is a powerful and puzzling expression that deserves its own dvar Torah, but I think it is a way of saying that the world—all spaces and all places—is held inside a container of intention and beauty and love; nothing is outside of that ultimate belonging.

The Talmud addresses makom kavua in Masechet Brachot, the tractate about prayer.

Everyone who designates a place for their prayer—כׇּל הַקּוֹבֵעַ מָקוֹם לִתְפִלָּתוֹ—the God of Abraham helps them. And when a person like that dies, it is said of them: “Where is the humble one, the pious one, student of our ancestor Abraham?"

Ei anav, ei hasid. Humble and pious—those are the characteristics of someone who has a makom kavua. Alan Morinis, a teacher of Mussar, develops this connection. “Where is the humility in sitting in the same place every time you pray in the synagogue?” he asks. “The answer is that by fixing yourself to one spot, you free up all the other space for others to use.” It is not about making ourselves disappear, but finding a place of balance on a spectrum that extends from arrogance to self-effacement. Humility—embodied in the idea of having a regular seat—is about how we take up space. It’s about taking up the right amount—not too much and not too little. It’s about making room for oneself, and also for the other. (Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis)

Throughout the Yamim Noraim, noticing where we are located on the humility spectrum is a core part of our work, and the service is filled with moments of embodied practice. During the Great Aleinu, we bow all the way to the ground—the only time all year that we do a full prostration. It is a posture of total surrender. Yet we are taught that by the time we say the words “lifnei Adonai,” before God, we should be risen again, as we enter the Divine Presence firmly in our dignity and agency. This movement is one we make all the time in our daily lives. We assert ourselves, and we take a step back. We humble ourselves, we surrender, we compromise, we serve; and we rise up in our dignity and agency. Ideally, the movement becomes integrated; surrender and assertion becoming not a binary we rocket between, but a single place of balance.

So what does communal or organizational humility look like? How does our community figure out the right kind of space to take up? To make room for both self and other?

This building is a church. It was built to be a church, it looks like a church, and it is used as a church. One of the reasons we are able to make a Jewish home here is because there are no crosses, no depictions of Jesus or Mary or other Christian figures. Another reason we are able to make a Jewish home here is because our congregation is in relationship with the Unitarian Universalist congregation that makes their home here, and with KidsArts and the other organizations that make this such a well-used community space.

Our relationship with First Church includes a deep friendship between our founding Rabbi, Victor Reinstein, and their long-time pastor Terry Burke of blessed memory. It includes relationships between members of our two congregations, who are friends and neighbors. As it shifts into sharing a building, we are learning together what it means to make this place a manifestation of care. In an early conversation with their leadership, our team asked about safety. What kind of security measures does First Church have in place? What safety plans has their congregation already prepared? And they were taken aback, because as a predominantly white UU congregation of folks with predominantly Christian backgrounds, they had never considered the importance of planning ahead for safety. As we talk with them, we’re teaching them about how to be in solidarity.

We are also learning from them. When I attended a First Church worship service this year, I learned that they begin with a land acknowledgment that includes recognizing that the church members who built this building benefited from the slave trade in both direct and indirect ways. That that is true of our space felt humbling, but so did the example they set for taking accountability. One of several reparations projects they engage in includes paying “royalties” when they include Black spirituals in their worship music, in the form of financial contributions supporting young Black musicians.

Last week, before Rosh Hashana, the current minister of First Church reached out to me. We would love to pray for your congregation, she said, but we know there is an ugly history of Christians praying for Jewish salvation. Do we have your consent to pray that “our partners at Nehar Shalom have a meaningful, deep, nurturing experience of religious community and tradition in these times?” We will also pray “for an end to antisemitism and Christian hegemony, in our world and in the places they may linger in our own minds and hearts."

As we navigate making a communal home in a building that is also a church, we have to ask ourselves: What will it take to make this space feel like a shul? To make it feel Jewish? To make it feel like our home? These are questions I am especially excited about, and which I really hope you will help us answer.

As we make our makom kavua in this building, the other communities that also call it home will experience change, will have to shift the way they take up space here. Humility, in that sense, is a truly collaborative project. We don’t take up space in a vacuum; we figure out how and how much space to take up in relationship, by navigating together where we overlap and where our boundaries are.

Christian hegemony and anti-Semitism are part of the political context in which we are navigating claiming and creating Jewish space inside this building. I want to name two other political contexts which shape our experience.

In JP, Nehar Shalom’s search for a makom kavua has evolved in the context of an extreme housing crisis in our city. The high cost of space and our aspiration not to participate in the ongoing harm of gentrification, is part of what led us to sharing this space. So many people and families in our city are not able to find a place of their own; live in atrociously under-funded public housing; or wait for years or decades for the financial support they need. So many families who had a makom kavua in JP for generations have been forced to leave. So many members of our community wonder whether their home will be sold to a developer; whether the already astronomical rent will become out of reach; whether it just won’t make any sense to stay here. It is a painful and destabilizing context for our congregation. I believe that, in order to make JP into a neighborhood we both want to and are able to live in, we will have to take an active role in shaping the future of housing justice in our city, and I hope that can become part of the work we do in collaboration with First Church.

I began by saying this is a dvar Torah about Jewish space in the diaspora, but our experience is shaped by the spiritual, emotional, and political complexities of how Jews are claiming Jewish space in Israel and Palestine. Speaking personally, it’s very powerful for me to be in Israel and experience public space as Jewish space. There is so much to be learned from the complexities of having a majority identity, from having state power. It is also very painful to reflect on how our UU and Christian neighbors are supporting our creation of sacred space here when Palestinian sacred spaces—homes, farms, cemeteries, mosques, schools—are destroyed on a daily basis in the name of Jewish access.

Maybe more than any other sermon I’ve written, I have more questions than answers. But I know that the richest and most powerful responses will come when we consider this wide range of questions in light of each other. When we learn from history about ways Jews have claimed and created Jewish space—what we want to inspire us, and what we want to do differently. When we wrestle deeply with what it means to take up space, as individuals and as a community, and how to navigate space that is shared.

The Talmud calls anyone who designates their own space for prayer a student of Abraham Avinu, and then asks how we know that Abraham fixed his own place for prayer. It quotes the book of Genesis: “And Abraham rose in the morning to the place where he had stood before God” (Genesis 19:27). The place where he had stood before God is the place from which he in fact argued with God, pleading with God not to destroy the cities of Sdom and Gomorrah. He returns to the same place after the cities are destroyed. We aren’t told why he returns to that place or what he feels as he looks at the ruined city. But his plea that God not destroy those cities is one of the origin stories for Jewish prayer, a model of prayer as protest. Humility, it seems, can mean rising up when we are called; a makom kavua is a place from which we fight for what we believe in. In that sense, it’s vital that we each have our individual makom kavua, the place in which we can hold our truths and rise up in our own power. It’s vital that we create a makom kavua for our community, the place in which we can establish our collective home, and navigate our boundaries together. And it’s vital that we remember that we are all inside of hamakom, the Divine container in which we all ultimately belong.

In June of 2021 when we started having services in person again, outdoors, whenever my mind wandered during davening, I would look down and see what treasures were buried in the woodchips. Pencils, crayons, legos, drawings of robots, glitter. Part of me felt challenged by all the detritus, but I came to love that the space we made sacred by davening and learning Torah in it on Shabbes was made sacred during the week by kids being themselves and using their imaginations in it. There are so many ways of sacralizing space, of making it into place, into a manifestation of care.

Even as we wrestle with the powerful challenges of this project, this year, may we know that we are held with care; may we hold one another and our neighbors with care; and may we be blessed with familiarity, with intention, with love and with belonging.


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