Of all the enemies our ancestors faced in antiquity, perhaps none were more fearsome than the Assyrians. Around 900 BCE, Assyria began to conquer much of what was at the time the known world. The empire Assyria built stretched from Syria in the west to Iran in the east, and from Turkey in the north to the Arabian peninsula in the south.
The Assyrians built their empire with unprecedented military might and brutality. Its fleet of chariots was without parallel; its soldiers fierce and bloodthirsty; its strategy of siege, conquest, and plunder terrified everyone in its warpath. After Assyria invaded, destroyed, and despoiled your country, it would take captive a conquered people’s best and brightest and resettle them elsewhere in the empire. This brutal innovation broke the power of vanquished nations, ensuring that their lands would forever remain under Assyrian control.
Such was the brutal fate that befell some of our ancestors. After the death of King Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel split into two: a kingdom in the north called Israel, and a kingdom in the south called Judah. Those two separate and independent nations, populated by people with shared ethnicity and culture but differing tribal and geographic loyalties, existed side-by-side for nearly two centuries until 722 BCE. In 722, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.
Against this backdrop, a movement began that would alter the course of Jewish history. King Hezekiah of Judah ascended the throne around the time Assyria conquered Israel. He assumed that, now that they had laid waste to Israel, Judah would be next in Assyrian crosshairs. So Hezekiah made preparations to withstand the impending Assyrian assault.
What did he do? He took steps to make the Temple in Jerusalem the center of Jewish religious life.
To us, this may seem like a surprising strategy. Why not raise an army? Or levy more taxes? Or build a bigger wall?
But in actuality, it was a brilliant move, one that has lessons to teach for our time as well.
See, centralizing worship in Jerusalem was major innovation. Some might say it was a revolution. True, King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem about 250 years before Hezekiah, but the people still worshipped freely at shrines all over ancient Israel. So when, according to the biblical Book of Kings, Hezekiah “abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post” (2 Kings 18:4), he was in fact taking drastic measures to deal with drastic times.
Why’d he do it? Hezekiah centralized worship in Jerusalem because he believed in the message best encapsulated by the modern protest adage, “the people united can never be defeated!” Or, as the midrash teaches:
אם נוטל אדם אגודה של קנים, שמא יכול לשברם בבת אחת.
ואלו נוטלן אחת אחת, אפלו תינוק משברן.
וכן את מוצא שאין ישראל נגאלין עד שיהיו כלן אגדה אחת.
“When many reeds are bound together, it’s not possible to break them; but if they are separated one from another, then even an infant can break them. From this we learn that Israel will not be redeemed until they are united.”
Hezekiah believed that only a united kingdom could resist the Assyrian threat. And only creating one spiritual center could make his people into one community.
Moving all worship to Jerusalem united the people financially. Remember that our ancestors prayed largely through animal sacrifice. An entire economic system naturally developed around such an institution. When worship can take place anywhere, that economy is smaller, more diffuse, and weaker. By requiring that worship occur only in one location, Hezekiah ensured a larger, interconnected, interdependent, and more robust worship economy. And by housing that economy in the capital, Hezekiah could more easily amass the resources he needed to invest in the institutions and projects that would make all of Judah strong, prosperous, and able to resist Assyria.
And centralizing worship united the people politically, socially, and culturally. When worship can take place anywhere, traditions and practices will vary from place to place. This was an important insight for Hezekiah, since Judah had just absorbed an influx of northern Israelites who worshipped God a little differently than their southern cousins. Diversity is a beautiful thing until it convinces people that their differences are greater than that which unites them, and that their parochial loyalties are more precious than the common welfare. When that happens, differences can become divisions, divisions can breed enmity or strife, and a kingdom can disintegrate and weaken.
Creating one shared religious space emphasized the traditions and values the people shared. It facilitated meaningful relationships, enabling everyone, regardless of background, to engage with each other in times of pain and in times of joy, bringing meaning and holiness to each stage of each other’s life’s journeys. Coalescing around one physical symbol – a symbol, no less, that evoked the people’s glorious shared past and was situated in the heart of a city originally built to unite the northern and southern tribes – provided a shared identity to a diverse people, helping them become one community.
Yes, a Temple is just a building. And God is everywhere, so of course God can theoretically be worshipped anywhere. But when people are invited to see a building as their shared home and their common access point for the transcendent, something powerful happens. The people become united. And a people united can never be defeated.
Hezekiah’s gamble paid off. In 701, Assyria invaded Judah. Miraculously, Jerusalem managed to withstand the siege. The Assyrian military machine that had once seemed invincible was halted through the power of a newly united Judean people, a people that was brought together by virtue of a common house of worship.
A lot has changed since Hezekiah’s time, and yet much has remained the same. The Assyrians are long gone, but the Jewish community today still faces existential threats. Thankfully, in our time, there aren’t many external enemies bent on wiping us from the map. But there are still Assyrians on our doorstep, if you know how to spot them. And Jewish survival is never guaranteed.
Our open, free, multicultural society, where religion is practiced only as a matter of conscience and not compulsion, is both the most extraordinary, unprecedented blessing in all of Jewish history and, paradoxically, one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival we have ever encountered. In our time, each of us is free to worship however, wherever, whenever, and to whomever we want, or not to worship at all.
This freedom, when combined with the equal competition of differing religious traditions in the open marketplace of ideas, the widespread perception of hypocrisy and abuse in organized religious life, the ability to find meaning and community outside of the religious tradition into which one is born, the downturn in social pressure to affiliate with an established religious community, and the decline of institutional affiliation in general has led to a dizzying decline of organized religion.
The American Jewish community is not immune to this reality. We’ve seen this phenomenon up-close and personal here in Richmond: Consider our temple’s last two decades. In 1994, we had 830 member households; by 2014, when I became your rabbi, we had 420. Our experience is not unique. Our neighboring congregations have fared similarly over the last two decades, as have synagogues nationwide. Nearly everyone out there is having a hard time.
Now, I’m very proud to say that today, Temple Beth-El is growing. But we must be honest about the trials we’ve endured and the strong headwinds we still face.
Confronted with this reality, we would do well to learn from King Hezekiah, and we at Temple Beth-El have the capacity to put this wisdom into practice right now.
Our congregation strives to be an intentional and interconnected spiritual community where we all help each other grow Jewishly, flourish personally, and build a better world. But, if we are honest, sometimes we miss the mark. There are exquisite moments when I experience our cohesiveness and unity, moments when God’s presence is palpable, when I am convinced not only that our community will endure but that it will thrive long into the future because of the sanctity, love, and strength we bring to each others’ lives. Such moments are the essence of Jewish life, the way we nurture the souls of those who are here with us this day, and the way we inspire those who are not here with us today to embrace us tomorrow.
But there are also times, and I suspect you have felt them too, when we feel atomized, a collection of smaller sub-communities, groups, and even cliques. When I see us cluster within our own social, demographic, and geographical groups, I become sad. I know how it hurts people, and how it diminishes each of our lives. And I become afraid, for I know that congregations where people separate from one another physically, emotionally, and spiritually drive people away and endanger their own future.
This year, we are attempting to tackle this challenge head-on in multiple ways. One major new effort is The Havurah Project, a program that connects small groups of community members across social and demographic divides at the common space of the Shabbat table. Through this simple idea – congregants sharing Shabbat with other congregants in each other’s homes – we will weave a stronger and more cohesive communal fabric. I’m pleased to announce that nearly a quarter of our congregation, folks ranging in age from 6 months to 90+, is participating in this pilot year of The Havurah Project!
Registration for the Havurah Project is closed, but if you want to participate and for some reason missed the boat, drop me a line. I’ll see if there’s something we can do. At the very least, we hope to have even more of you participate in the project in the future. Through the Havurah Project, we are bridging communal divides and helping deepen each of our relationships with each other, with the community as a whole, and with the Jewish tradition. By coming together in this way, our community will grow stronger and more vibrant.
But the Havurah Project is just the beginning. There is something even more significant that we must do. If we are to be one congregational community, we need one spiritual home. As King Hezekiah demonstrated two thousand years ago, the only way for us to secure our community’s future is to create one campus.
One community. One shared future. One campus. A vision for our congregation that is both beautiful in its simplicity and profound in its necessity.
For the past two decades, we have owned, operated, maintained, and divided time between two disparate campuses.
When we began building our school campus on Parham, the rationale was simple: We needed more space. As a fundraising pamphlet printed at the time explains:
Our school building is no longer adequate for Temple Beth-El’s needs. The classrooms are too small and too few. We do not have a usable library with computer work stations, reading areas, and a broad selection of books. Nor do we have a chapel for holding services at the school. Simply stated, we have outgrown our current building.
Expanding may have made sense at the time, and may have adequately addressed our facilities needs, at least while we were a congregation of over 800 families. But today, our congregation is half the size it was back then. And while we’re growing, it is very unlikely that we will swell back to that size any time soon, given the headwinds we face. Our original reason for having two campuses no longer applies.
But it’s not just about having too much space. It’s that our two-campus model has harmed us and threatens our future.
Over the past twenty years, having two campuses has divided us socially, culturally, and spiritually. When part of our community primarily engages with one campus, and the other part of our community primarily engages with another, how can anyone feel that they are part of one cohesive community?
We have seen how our two campuses have split us into distinct “School” and “shul” communities and distinct West-End and city communities, both with the look and feel of being autonomous communities in their own rights.
We have seen how having two campuses has led to the development of a community of congregants who gravitate to Parham, and a community of congregants who gravitate to Grove, how it has led to a reality in which many of our children never set foot in our sanctuary until their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and in which many of our elders never encounter the vibrant sound of our children learning Torah.
Having two homes communicates that our differences are greater than that which unites us, and that our demographic loyalties or needs as individual religious consumers are more precious than the larger community we share.
Our current two-campus model also disables us from adequately investing – emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, financially – in either venue. We can all see the results: This once magnificent campus, which was built by the parents and grandparents of the people in this room – has been permitted to fall into disrepair before our very eyes. Resources are always scarce, and funds that could be used to restore, renovate, and redesign this campus are perpetually diverted to the Parham building.
Meanwhile, our Parham campus is also showing signs of age. Funds we need to make necessary repairs there are being diverted to projects like fixing the social hall ceiling here. We simply can’t afford the facilities we want and need at both locations.
And the fact that human and financial resources need to be channelled to the upkeep and operation of both buildings means we have less to allocate to the real business of congregational life. It makes our staff less able to collaborate, focus, and execute our holy work with quality and efficiency. And we as a congregation can’t adequately invest in the kind of vibrant programming we envision, or the outreach work we need to do in order to grow. The result is perpetually diminishing returns.
But, to paraphrase the great Eastern philosopher Lao Tzu, when we let go of what we are, we can become what we might be. If we were to share one campus, we could emphasize our collective past, present, and future. If we were to coalesce around one symbol – a physical, tangible, symbol – congregants of diverse backgrounds and needs could discover and take pride in their shared identity. It would also strengthen and solidify our place in the public’s perception.
Having one common space would enable everyone in our community, regardless of where they are from, to engage with each other in times of pain and in times of joy. It would help us forge stronger bonds and bring meaning and holiness to each other at each stage of our life’s journeys.
Having one campus would enable us to invest our finite resources where they most matter: into the programs and engagement tools we need to nurture a dynamic, passionate, and heymish spiritual community where we support and inspire each other.
I know that the path to creating one shared campus will be a long and challenging one. I’m also aware that we’ve tried this before and have failed. To be successful, our entire community must walk this path side by side, hand in hand. It cannot only be about one person’s vision. All of our voices have to be heard. Plans will have to be developed and debated. Resources will have to be raised. Difficult decisions will have to be made.
We must overcome our fears through our faith in each other and in the importance of our community’s purpose. We must overcome our cynicism borne of past failures and present frustrations with hope for the bright future God is holding out for us.
Yes, it may be a hard road ahead. But, to paraphrase Anais Nin, the day has come when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more dangerous than the risk it will take to blossom. Either we address this issue now, together, our own way, or the modern-day Assyrians will do it for us.
So this year, under the leadership of our Visioning Steering Committee, we are going to start the process. Our first step will be to convene focus groups comprised of a diverse and representative cross-section of our congregation to hear from you about what you would like a synagogue campus to do for you. These groups will not focus on questions of geography – as in which of our current campuses do you prefer – but rather on what features a facility would need to have in order for it to maximally contribute to nurturing communal connection and spiritual engagement.
Our ushers are now coming down the aisles and handing out postcards. These postcards explain how we will conduct these focus groups, and what will be expected from the participants of those gatherings.
On the card you’ll find a link to an online registration form. If you would like to take part in one of our focus groups, please either go to that website and register or return your filled-out card to the Temple office. The deadline for registering is Erev Yom Kippur, Tuesday, October 11.
Once we receive all the registrations, we will organize the groups and inform participants of the time, date, and location of their gathering. We plan on convening 3 or 4 groups, with 8 to 10 congregants in each, over the next three months. If we receive more registrations than we have space for, we will select participants at random, accounting for the need for as much diversity as possible. But fear not: if you don’t register for a focus group, or if you get spaced out of a focus group, we will offer other ways for you to share your thoughts.
Our next step, which will occur this winter, will be to survey the entire congregation, to hear all of your views and to refine and sharpen what we learned from the focus groups. Again, we won’t be focusing on questions of “where,” but rather on “what.”
Meanwhile, we will be conducting in-depth analyses of both of our campuses to ascertain the opportunities and limitations of both properties.
Once we amass and study all of that data, most likely this spring, we will engage qualified professionals to work with us in designing multiple models for a campus that will meet our needs and desires, as well as providing us with a full understanding of the values of our current assets and creating multiple models for how we might be able to finance our dreams. Ultimately, perhaps by this time next year, we will ask all of you to weigh in on a final vision for our future home. Then, the real work of bringing our dreams to life will begin. I hope you will partner with us for each step of this exciting journey.
Throughout our people’s history, every vision of redemption has involved one people coming together as one community in one space. The vision that got us out of Egypt was joining together and marching through the wilderness to the Promised Land, a country we were to inherit, conquer, and inhabit together. The vision that saved us from the Assyrians was coalescing around the Temple, one spiritual space where we could gather and celebrate and cry and pray together as one community. And the prophetic vision for the Messianic era is “והביאנו לשלום מארבע כנפות הארץ ותוליכנו קוממיות לארצנו / You will bring us from the four corners of the earth into wholeness and lead us fearlessly into our land.”
Deep in my heart I know that the time for our congregation’s redemption is at hand. And it can only be realized by us coming together, as one community, with one home.
So, I invite you to pray with me: Adonai, El po’el yeshu’ot, Holy One, the Power that makes for redemption, in the year to come, let us join together, let us be together, let us build together. Let us stand – secure in the faith that we stand strongest only when we stand – together.