[Remarks by East Midwood Jewish Center Rabbi Matt Carl on the occasion of EMJC’s 90th anniversary celebration, December 14, 2014.]
Those of you who have belonged to wealthy synagogues in the suburbs may be familiar with the cycle of such shuls rebuilding, renovating and expanding their physical structure. We here in the city have a much more diffi- cult time with this because of the obvious physical constraints our setting places upon us. These synagogues un- doubtedly seek to enhance the role they play in their communities, in their congregants’ lives… but they some- times also seek to enhance their stature through their buildings, as if these buildings matter more than what goes on inside them. Some of us in the rabbi world deride such attitudes with the term Edifice Complex.
The building in which you are currently sitting, the property on which it stands, they are very different than the ones to which I just alluded. As you have already seen in photos, as you have heard in thought-provoking talks, and as you can see from simply looking around, the East Midwood Jewish Center has been built in more-or-less its current form for a very long time. In some ways, this building represents our past. On the other hand, we have features here that are very unusual in any building in Brooklyn, let alone a synagogue. These are resources we are uniquely and exclusively able to provide the community, our members and people who might wish to become members. In these ways, this building represents our future.
One of the legends of which East Midwood is proud is that our earliest members built this synagogue with a small mortgage. They endeavored to build this place in such a way that their children wouldn’t have to worry about how to pay for it. It is our past but it was their future.
I have been speaking so far of the relationship of past to future but in reality, there is no future. I can’t imagine any of us would make much better than a 50/50 fortune teller and, truthfully, why bother? The future is not the future at all. Rather, it is our hopes, our desires, our prayers… all rooted in This Moment.
At this moment…
As you know, the miracle of Hanukkah was that one day’s worth of oil lasted instead for 8 days. The Talmud records a debate between the rabbis Shammai and Hillel on how to commemorate this event. Shammai contends, logically, that we should light 8 candles on the first night, 7 the second night, 6 the third, until we are finished. In this way, we represent the miracle accurately: each night a little less oil, a little less light, than the previous night. Of course, no one does this today. Instead Hillel’s method, while less representative of the story, wins the rabbis’ approval. We light one more candle each night, rather than one fewer, contends Hillel, because ma’alin baKodesh v’ayn Moridin, we increase in holiness, rather than decrease.
An unfortunate side effect of knowing that this building was built with financial stability, of knowing that our congregation once numbered well over a thousand families, of telling the stories of the greatness of East Mid- wood’s past is that it is tempting to believe that our miraculous place was once great but has since permanently faded.
It is simply not true. We are a place that maintains the values of those who came before us and also re- flects the values of this moment: At this moment, we get a great crowd each Shabbat and we also provide space for a church to meet and engage in their worship because we value neighborliness and remember what it was like to be a community that can’t yet afford a space of its own. At this moment, we are fully committed to gender equality and integration and also provide separate men’s and women’s swimming hours in our pool because we value diversity and believe that just because some of our neighbors have different religious views than us doesn’t mean they shouldn’t stay healthy and fit! At this moment, we are a home for English as a Second Language clas- ses and for the Seniors League of Flatbush because we believe these are essential services for our city, our bor- ough and our neighborhood. At this moment, we are a home for gymnastics, dancing, basketball, swimming… karate because we know that people in this community don’t have many places that can accommodate such activ- ities. At this moment, Room J and our other youth programs set new standards for Brooklyn and beyond. At this moment, our partnerships with EMHDS, ILJB and others expand our reach well beyond these walls. At this mo- ment, our minyan meets morning and evening, every day of the year not only because we value prayer but also because we value being there for people who need to say Kaddish. As the only egalitarian daily minyan in Brook- lyn, we also meet because if we don’t provide a space where a woman can comfortably say Kaddish, no one else will.
Our forebears, who built this wonderful place, put these resources in this building, in our house, so that we could, at this moment, and at every moment, in every day, rededicate them with our actions, with our programs and with our values.
At this moment, we are preparing for Hanukkah, the festival of light, the time when we celebrate not the near-failing of the Jewish House of Worship but, instead, its rededication. At the very moment before we light our Hanukkah candles each night, we say a special blessing. In saying it, we bring past and present together: We refer to God as sh’Asah Nisim Lavoteinu BaYamim HaHem baZman HaZeh The One “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days at this moment.”
When we take the values, the institution, the building created by those who came before us… and make them real every day, and when we specifically rededicate them today, we emulate God. It must have seemed like a miracle to build a place like this, to create a congregation like this, 90 years ago. But each night of Hanukkah we are reminded that the mir- acles of our ancestors are re-lived and re-encountered at this moment.
East Midwood Jewish Center is not our past. It is Our House.