Dan Bilefsky, New York Time’s reporter up in Canada would in all likelihood benefit from a vocabulary lesson. Last week, Mr. Bilefsky wrote an article titled “Old Houses of Worship Resurrected.” Mr. Bilefsky described how once vibrant Montreal churches are now operating as a gym and spa or a comedy club or a fromagerie (cheese shop). Excuse me? The literal definition of resurrected means brought back to life. Resurrected implies brought back to life as it once was. A house of worship that is now operating as a comedy club defies the term resurrection; a house of worship that is now operating as a comedy club is defined as desecration. Just look at what has become of a House of G-d!
Yet, it seems to me, that a house of worship need not close its doors to suffer desecration. Houses of worship have been undergoing desecration for decades now. And in some cases, synagogues; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, have done their share to desecrate. Well-meaning rabbis envisioned that the congregation serve as a “one stop” recreation center for its people. Throughout the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s, suburban synagogues were built with basketball courts, and exercise rooms with the pièce de résistance being “a shule with a pool!” Why, even the names of these congregations evoked the fact that all one’s needs are provided for. In the late ‘70’s, I was teaching Hebrew School at Van Cortland Jewish Center in the Bronx. Hanging on the wall in my office is a vanity license plate denoting my prior pulpit, (Temple) Beth Or. Yet, Temple Beth Or was incorporated as Clark Jewish Center!
Personally speaking, I am very much in favor of a synagogue being home to a Cub Scout pack or a Girl Guide group. I think it’s wonderful that Book Clubs take place in synagogue buildings and I would give anything if we could provide a meeting place for Jewish seniors to get together on a regular to play mahjong or Bridge.
Heaven forbid however, that all these pastimes and recreational activities be at the expense of praying! One of the saddest comments I ever heard, was from a well-meaning congregant who boasted that she was in the synagogue six days a week. What she neglected to say, is that as often as she was in the synagogue building, she entered the sanctuary a mere four times a year – both days of Rosh Hashana, Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur Yizkor. Regardless of the name on the building of a church, synagogue, or mosque; it is still first and foremost a house of prayer. People like to see synagogues active and vibrant. No one would argue that. Yet, when prayer becomes at best secondary to other activities taking place, then I cannot help but feel that it is time for the synagogue leadership to engage in some serious soul-searching.
Halacha or Jewish law was quite specific when it forbade the sale of a synagogue to a church. I cannot help but feel that Halacha or Jewish law saw the very walls of a synagogue being imbued with a sanctity that did not dissipate with the sale of the building. I also cannot help but feel that Halacha or Jewish law fell woefully short. If the sanctity of a synagogue is anything but ephemeral, then that sanctity must take presence over anything and everything that goes on in that synagogue. Let it never be forgotten that Book Clubs, Bridge Clubs, Youth Clubs, as well as all other activities are taking place in a House of Worship.
“My grandmother is happy I spend time in Church, even if I’m exercising my biceps and not my soul,” said Olivier Pratte in a Montreal gym that had once been a church.
Maybe your grandmother is happy, Mr. Pratte. Many other grandmothers are rolling over in their graves, seeing what has become of their house of worship as perspiration replaces inspiration.