Dedication of the New Rodfei Zedek

menorah imageThe congregation dedicated our new building with joy in 2000:

  • Friday evening, September 15:  Dedication of the Glick Chapel and the adjoining Ringel Room.  Challah Cover Project, Family Shabbat Service, and Shabbat Dinner.
  • Saturday morning, September 16:  Return of our Torah scrolls from their temporary home to their new permanent home in the Holy Ark and dedication of the Rabbi Ralph Simon Sanctuary in The Synagogue that Built Itself, followed by a kiddush lunch.
  • Saturday Evening, September 16:  Gala Benefit and Dedication of Social Hall.  Reception and Tour, Havdalah Service followed by Dinner, Music and Dancing
  • Sunday afternoon, September 17:  Dedication of the Hyde Park Jewish Commuity Center and Congregation Rodfei Zedek.

Making News!  Chicago Tribune, Sun Times, JUF News, Chicago Jewish History

The Synagogue that Built Itself

Rabbi Elliiot B. Gertel
September 16, 2000

There is a comment about the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple, a comment that I’ve always thought was rather strange.  It originated in the Talmud, the teachings of our Sages of 2,000 years ago, and is elaborated upon in the Zohar, the beautiful mystical commentary on the Torah from the thirteenth century.  It says that the Sanctuary built itself; it showed the workers and the builders what was required.  “It was built of its own accord, though seemingly by the hands of the laborers; it showed the workers a plan which guided their hands and from which they did not turn their eyes until the whole building of the house was completed.” (Zohar, Noah, 74a)

The more I think about it, the more I think that this strange observation about the Sanctuary in Solomon’s time is true of our new Rodfei Zedek Synagogue and of the Jewish Community Center.  This Sanctuary built itself.

Now in saying that, I do not mean to minimize the splendid efforts of our architect, Phil Kupritz, or of the Kipley Construction Company, ably guided on our site by Tim Curtin.  And I certainly do not for a moment minimize the excellent work of the officers and fundraisers of Rodfei Zedek – Ed Hamburg, our President and negotiator, who brought everything together; Steve Loevy and Lisa Landes, the effective leaders of our fundraising, with the able help of Katharine Woods Ravenel and Associates and an effective committee; Jim Gimpel, the master of architectural detail, who was in touch with us or with the contractors almost every day; Sara Segal Loevy, our dedicated financial officer, who also supervised the inventory of our precious Torahs and other ritual objects, and all of our officers, board and committees.

I will never forget as long as I live and Rodfei Zedek must never forget the generosity and graciousness of our members in contributing quickly and generously to this campaign, and for paying pledges so faithfully.  The first contributors gave us courage and comfort that the campaign would be the success that it has been – Seymour Graham, of blessed memory, who from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, gave us our first major contribution for exploring the possibilities of building, and his brother Harold Graham, our devoted synagogue leader, who soon matched it, and endowed the office suite; Henry and Soretta Schapiro, who responded immediately after I first spoke of our building plans in a Rosh Hashanah sermon; Dorothy Nelson, who donated the Gift Shop; Helen Tyson, who honored the rabbi’s office by naming it; the Sisterhood; and the late Leo Mitteldorf, of blessed memory.  We should never forget the first to give gifts of stocks and securities, creating a precedent that helped us to pay our bills in a timely fashion, Melva Keller and Diana Ginsburg. And we are grateful to so many who followed with significant contributions, and are particularly thankful to those who have named the major spaces, especially those honored this weekend – Joseph and Dora Abbell, of blessed memory, and Louise and Bill Holland; the Glicks; the Landeses; the Loebs; the Newbergers; and Greta Lobshen, of blessed memory.  We fully and thankfully acknowledge those of the J.C.C. who worked so hard on this project, their officers and fundraisers, and those in their central offices and in the offices of Federation.

There are a lot of hard workers and devoted givers involved in the building of this Synagogue and Center.  But I still think that the Talmud and Zohar are right on the mark.  In many spiritually and sociologically significant ways, this building had to be built now.  It did build itself.

This Synagogue-Center has arisen, first of all, because now, more than ever, the American Jewish community and the Chicago Jewish community need a new way of thinking.  You may have heard the old story of the host who suddenly gets up in the middle of dinner in his own home and excuses himself by saying that he has to go to the board meeting of his synagogue.  His guests are embarrassed.  They say to him:  “You have to leave us?  Why do you have to be there right now?  Are you the president of the synagogue?”  He says:  “President?  With those people? No way.” They ask: Are you the vice-president, that you have to leave your guests and go to the meeting?” Again, he replies, “No way. Not with that crowd.”  They ask again and again:  “Recording Secretary?  Treasurer?  Campaign Chairman?”  “No way,” he keeps answering.  Finally, they ask him:  “Then why do you have to go? ” He says:  “I’m the ‘Against,’ the one who always votes ‘No!’”

We are able to gather here today because the boards of Rodfei Zedek, the Jewish Community Center, Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School and Federation were able to say “Yes” to a cooperative and creative venture, to work together for the community, to enlist the help of young and old, for the sharing of space and vision and programs and commitment.  Even more wonderful is that many people in this congregation and in the community at large did something that is all too rare and beautiful – they thought, and then they rethought; they changed their minds!

This is an election year, and I am reminded of a story about Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for President of the United States.  He spoke at a college.  A student came up to him after his speech and said, “You’ve got my vote.  You’re the thinking person’s candidate.”  Stevenson replied: “I thank you, that’s nice, but it won’t help.  We need a majority!”

Professor Abraham Heschel, of blessed memory, held the chair in Jewish ethics established at the Jewish Theological Seminary by Rodfei Zedek in honor of Rabbi Ralph Simon, of blessed memory.  Professor Heschel once made this startling but true statement:  “One of the greatest tragedies in life is that most people only think once.”  They do not change or modify or refine their thinking.  That is a great tragedy in life and in Jewish communities, isn’t it?  But this building is testimony that such tragedies need not destroy lives and communities.  This building was bound to rise on this site, as if by its own power, as soon as people thought and rethought and listened, changed their minds, and refined their goals.

So this building has risen because people were willing to think and to rethink – and Jewish people, about Jewish matters.

This building stands, secondly, because a neighborhood was willing to accept it.  Things didn’t always look that way.  Our initial proposals, especially the possibility of building a midrise on part of this site, were not hospitably received.  The very fact that we wanted to develop and reconfigure our property stirred up a hornets’ nest of the deepest fears and concerns and inconsistencies in our community about housing.  All of this showed that, as a community, issues of housing are still largely unresolved.  Clearer, long-range plans and more effective programs of outreach to surrounding neighborhoods are sorely needed.

At the last annual meeting of the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, in June, the issue of affordable housing was discussed and explored in some detail.  The Council was on to a significant problem in our community and across the nation. In our own congregation, I think of remarkable individuals who came to this community as retirees, and enhanced immeasurably our programs, but who probably could not have afforded to move here now, either as buyers or renters.  Some have moved away, to the North Sheridan area, because they could no longer afford housing here.  It is vital that Hyde Park be a place where residents can live at reasonable costs, and be able to shop reasonably for food and gasoline and other necessities.

You know the famous words on the Liberty Bell, taken from the Torah, from Leviticus:  “Ye shall proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  Our Sages of 2,000 years ago asked: “What is the meaning of the word d’ror, ‘liberty’?”  And they answered: “A free person is one who may dwell, dur, at an inn, who can reside anywhere he or she pleases, and is not in the control of others.”  They saw in the Hebrew, d’ror, freedom, the concept of dur – of housing.  What a beautiful statement on civil rights and what a mandate for economic justice in housing.  And this building has materialized, as if on its own, to alert us to find ways to work for reasonable and fair housing in our community and in surrounding areas.  We must inspire ourselves and others to be rodfei zedek, “pursuers of righteousness,” of justice.

And thirdly and finally this marvelous building has sprouted, as if by itself, to remind the Jewish community and the general community that blessing comes to this world when Jews worship their God and study God’s Torah and continue to be a distinct people, a unique tribe, among peoples.  America has been a great blessing to Jews, and Jews are a blessing to America, not so much for discoveries they make and books they write and services they perform – although all these are important – but because they remain what they are, namely Jews.

You may have noted that this building has several panels on the upper exterior walls, twelve and three.  I was told that these were left for possible decoration, sculptures with appropriate themes.  Someone commented that we could decorate them with the twelve tribes.  Someone remarked that we could adorn them with the signs of the Zodiac.  Yet in this year 2000, Zodiac signs on the synagogue would mirror an assault on Judaism and on Jewish peoplehood.  For it is precisely those who advocate New Age spirituality who have proclaimed the loudest that the age of “tribalism” is over, that the time of the Hebrews – and of Christianity and Islam, for that matter – is up, and that the “Age of Aquarius” or the “Symbolic Age” has arrived.

The tribal God who gave commandments, they say, must be replaced by a healing energy that can be scientifically tapped.  The people of Abraham who were promised that they would be a blessing as a nation, with a homeland and a covenant, the people who stood with Moses at Sinai, are replaced by an “age of self-discovery.”  We are assured that in the “new millennium,” we will not need the guidance of the old biblical codes.  Rather the stars and synchronicity will explain our characters and “purpose”; we’ll know how to behave when we channel our spirit guides, recognize our “cosmic soul mates,” and then anything we decide to do will be proper, and the old biblical laws will be history, an unhappy memory.  That is the enticing, if vague, morality and philosophy of the millennium.  It is big industry, from television to the publishing industry.  Just consider the movie that won the Emmy Award this past week, Tuesdays with Morrie.  The film was the product of an entertainment corporation right here in Chicago that specializes in peddling New Age spirituality.  And what was the message of that film?  It was the message of the best-selling book that spawned it:  that the best lessons about spirituality that a young Jewish man learns from an older Jewish man have nothing to do with Torah or with Yiddishkeit, with Judaism.  In other words, their common Jewishness, the Jewish People, is besides the point to spirituality.  Every Yiddish word in the movie was connected to trauma, insensitivity, and lack of spirituality.  Think about the implications of that.  It all says that there is no longer a need for a people that remains a people by clinging to the same God and the same Torah.

This building has not risen as the result of the new millennium.  To us Jews, a thousand years are insignificant.  As we read earlier in the service, from the Psalms. “A thousand years in Thy sight are as a yesterday that is passed.”  Rather, this sanctuary is now being dedicated to testify that the same Torah, the same God, the same People Israel and the old-new State of Israel, the same hope for world redemption and peace brought about through Torah and mitzvot and Sabbaths and Festivals, are the blessing now that they have always been.  Hence, the ancient mystical formula on our Sanctuary windows: “God, Torah and Israel are One.” Hence, the words inscribed upon the Holy Ark, spoken by our people at Mount Sinai: “Na’aseh V’Nishmah” – Na’aseh, we shall do the commandments and embrace them and the Divine Commander; and that is the only way, Nishmah, that we will be able to understand and help the world to understand the blessing of having the Torah in the world, of having Jews to observe it, of having God Who loves and judges, Who creates and Who commands!

Now, I would hope that you are all thinking to yourselves:  Are we to expect a synagogue to spring up, as if by itself, every time the Jewish community cooperates wisely and thoughtfully, every time neighbor­hoods consider how to be more just and welcoming, every time Jews bring blessings to the world by cleaving to their people, their land, their Torah, their God?  Shouldn’t these things happen every day?  And the answer is:  Yes, we need these achievements and commitments every day.  Knowing that and living that way will enable all of us gathered here today to keep this synagogue vital and meaningful and to preserve this as a holy congregation; and to maintain a Jewish Community Center which represents Jewish teachings and visions in the neighbor­hood as models for community and for cooperation.

Permit me to conclude this morning with a brief reference to the Torah portion.  This sidra or Torah reading is very special to me not only because of this Dedication Service, but because it was my bar mitzvah portion.  And July marked the beginning of my bar mitzvah year, my thirteenth year, at Rodfei Zedek.

The Torah portion begins with a declaration by each pilgrim who came to Jerusalem with the first fruits harvested.  Each person carried a basket and said:  “I have done what God has commanded.  I have helped the priests and Levites to maintain the Temple.  I have provided for the widow and the orphan.  I have done my best.”  David Blumenthal read these passages this morning.  Right after telling the people to say these words, Moses observes:  “Hayom hazeh, this day, the Lord your God has commanded you to do these statutes, these laws, to keep them with all your heart and with all your soul.”  Madeleine Shapiro read this passage.

In pondering these verses, our Rabbis of 2,000 years ago offered some of their most beautiful comments on the Torah.  They said that every Jew, upon bringing offerings, while observing religious holidays, should be able to say: “I have myself rejoiced and I have made others to rejoice.”  Likewise, we must be able to say that we regard the commandments not as antiquated, old-fashioned heirlooms, but as something new, given hayom hazeh, as though we received them today, meaning every day.

God grant that this new synagogue inspire each and every one of us with the ways that it built itself:  creative thinking, concern about fairness and justice in the community, especially in housing; and the mandate to Jews to be Jews – to be a vital Jewish People with a strong Jewish State and thriving diaspora communities, with faith in the God of the Covenant, for this century as for every century.  Amen.

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