Windows 2000 | Congregation Beth Am

Windows 2000

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
December 8, 2000

I love Yiddish. Not only for its sound and its emotional texture, but for the special wisdom that resides in "di mameloshn." Take, for example, the term "shayne yidn." Literally it means "beautiful Jews." To Yiddish speakers a shayner yid isn't someone with lustrous hair, sparkling teeth and a great body. A shayner yid, a beautiful Jew, is a refined person, a cultivated person, a person of sterling character.

To me that little phrase captures a kernel of Jewish wisdom: the idea that true beauty, the beauty that matters, is inner beauty, beauty of heart and mind and soul.

I want to talk tonight about beautiful people, and also about beautiful synagogues.

Our own members, and visitors, often comment on how much they love this exquisite sanctuary. They tell me they find the setting serene, the colors brilliant and vibrant, the design spiritually uplifting and aesthetically pleasing. Architecturally this room is indeed a marvel. But the quiet, insistent voice of Yiddishkeit calls us also to pay attention to a truly Jewish aesthetic. Let us call it an aesthetic of character. It tells us that people, or synagogues, aren't born beautiful; they become beautiful when they perform beautiful acts.

Perhaps that's how we should understand an important bit of architectural advice the Talmud offers us about synagogue buildings. The halacha stipulates almost nothing about the external appearance of synagogues except this: It is forbidden to pray in a room without windows (Talmud Berachot 34a). For me, the most beautiful and important fact about this room, and about our congregation, is that we are surrounded by windows.

Windows 2000 - what's it all about? What does it mean to be a synagogue with windows?

For some of us, it means that we worship in a place that opens us up to the world of nature. Here in this quiet spot, high on a hill above the traffic and the strip malls and the frenetic busy-ness of our lives, we drink in the green trees and the glow of sunset. The darkness comes down on another day, and the silence refreshes our souls.

But our architect, Goodwin Steinberg, and the Beth Am leaders who worked with him decades ago to design this place, had something else in mind, as well. Our sanctuary was consciously created as a room with glass walls, its design evoking the tent of Abraham and Sarah in the wilderness - a tent, according to the Midrash, that was open on all four sides, so as to make it easy for travelers to enter from any direction. Our founders didn't want a refuge from the real world; they wanted to send the message that we are in the world, with all its heartaches and challenges, and the world should penetrate this place. They wanted a synagogue with windows - a porous, accessible structure, not a fortress to shut us away in cozy complacency, isolated from everyone around us. They gave us not a box but a tent, open to the winds of our time.

What would it be like to pray and live in a Jewish tent-community, not 3000 years ago in the desert but here and now in the Silicon Valley? It would mean knowing that sometimes talking about Torah means talking about politics; and faithfulness to Torah means community activism, being a voice for justice and compassion in the place where we live.

It would also mean something much more personal, and perhaps more difficult. Listen to this statement from the Shulchan Aruch, the central code of Jewish law: "One who sees an Ethiopian, or a person whose skin is extremely red, or an albino, or one who is inordinately tall and thin, or a dwarf, or a person covered with blemishes...recites the following: Baruch ata Adonai, meshane habriyot. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who creates a variety of creations." (Orach Chayim 225:8)

When we see an unusual-looking individual - one who might excite our ridicule or fear or discomfort, we're taught instead to say a blessing. The lesson is clear: There is a blessing in diversity, in the colorful canvas of God's creation. Our job is to find the blessing.

A tent-synagogue sends this message to everyone who comes within these walls. True prayer can't take place in a closed community, an exclusive country club of a shul. Our windows should teach us to be a community that truly appreciates the blessing of diversity, a congregation that embraces and draws in not only the moneyed, well-schooled and well-married, but Jews of every color and configuration-even those who make us uncomfortable, at first, because they are different from us.

In a synagogue with windows, people in suits and ties and dresses sit next to people in jeans and tennis shoes. Singles and couples, with and without kids, join with older folks and people in their twenties. Learned Jews pray along with those who grew up with no Jewish education. No one is a stranger; everyone has a place: emigres from the former Soviet Union, Iran and elsewhere; gays and lesbians, people in recovery, those battling depression or abuse. It's a comfortable home for Jews who are struggling economically, who didn't grow up Jewish, who are involved in interfaith or inter-racial marriages. An open-sided tent welcomes people in wheelchairs, those who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, those with Down Syndrome or developmental disabilities. A synagogue with windows honors those who don't have perfect bodies or a "Yiddishe Kop"; it cherishes precious Jewish children who will never take A.P. courses, go on to Stanford or a prestigious career.

They belong to us, all of them. They are part of us. We like to pretend otherwise, but we know that in truth there IS no "them" and "us," no way to wall ourselves off from the rest of the varied and colorful Jewish family. It is a spiritual act to open our windows, to draw all who wish to enter into the community of Israel, to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Thus says the Lord...My House shall be called a house of prayer for all people."

Accessibility is conveyed in structures of wood and concrete; now there are even laws to enforce our compliance. But this house becomes a house of prayer for all, only when we move beyond accessibility to experience a true opening of our hearts and minds to different ways of being. As a community, we have begun to think, and think seriously, about the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim : literally "causing guests to enter" - not waiting around for strangers to wander in, but actively, consciously bringing them in. And as a community, we'll continue to ask ourselves hard questions: What are the barriers, real and perceived, that keep our brothers and sisters outside these walls? Who has a place at our synagogue table? Who sits within the circle, who on the sidelines, and who, worst of all, is invisible in the synagogue, afraid to come out of hiding? Who is nourished by our care and concern; who hungers and thirsts for want of a friend?

I give thanks tonight for the wisdom of our founders, who taught us to pray in a tent and not in a beautifully decorated box. And I give thanks for the blessing of windows, for these windows that remind us to be shayne yidn, Jews who understand what real beauty is all about.

Congregation Beth Am
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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).