For centuries, Jewish life revolved around a magnificent piece of real estate – the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish holidays, holy rituals, sacrifices, prayers, priestly blessings, congregations etc. took place in the temple.
When the second temple was destroyed in AD 70, Judaism and the Jewish people had to adapt. We became wandering Jews. Over time, we replaced sacrifices with prayers, brought temple rituals to the Shabbat table and, among other things, placed great emphasis on studying the Torah.
We have also lost our obsession with real estate. We certainly prayed for the return of the Third Temple, but we largely left that to God. While other religions built spectacular monuments on site, we invested in education on site.
Our focus on “Mind Estate” and “Soul Estate” instead of real estate was reinforced by our uncertainties. Long periods of persecution and guests who were handed over to foreign rulers were not ideal conditions for the Jewish construction boom.
When we discovered America, we built with all our might. We finally found a place where property ownership was protected by enforceable laws. For a people traumatized by their past, the idea of owning land and buildings was irresistible. It’s not called “real estate” for nothing.
This impulse to build on one’s own land was not limited to real estate magnates. It has spread throughout the Jewish world, from synagogues, museums and community centers to schools, Holocaust memorials and cultural institutions. Groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies in the presence of wealthy donors became an independent Jewish ritual, a sign that you did it.
The main ritual that made these ceremonies possible was, of course, the sale of “naming opportunities” to potential donors. You will hardly see a Jewish building without countless donor names on the walls to the elevator. In total, billions of Jewish philanthropic dollars have been invested in these structures over the decades, some of them architectural wonders.
Today these buildings are mostly empty.
Let’s not shred words: this is a shock to our system. The idea that a beautiful Jewish room has become a potentially dangerous place is hard to process.
Like practically all commercial properties across the country, the survival of which depends on crowds, just about every Jewish place in America is closed and closed for business.
They were not confiscated by ruthless leaders. They were attacked by a deadly virus.
Let’s not shred words: this is a shock to our system. The idea that a beautiful Jewish room has become a potentially dangerous place is hard to process. The heart and soul of these places is to physically bring people together. How much is the space worth if being close to other people is a threat to our health?
Don’t be fooled by the zoom craze. It is wonderful that so many prayer services, courses and events have gone online, but behind these lively digital screens there is an extremely uncomfortable question: what will happen to all these empty rooms?
Many Jewish institutions that rely on attendance, membership fees, and other sources of income may not be able to hold out until the crisis is over.
With the COVID-19 crisis going on indefinitely, experts warning of future outbreaks, and a senior World Health Organization official saying that the coronavirus “may never go away”, this issue will become even more pressing.
The longer these buildings remain empty, the higher the transportation costs. And if people find it increasingly convenient to replace their local experiences with the online security of their homes, how many risk venturing back into the crowd, even after a vaccine has been found in a year, two or three years ?
I have not met too many rabbis who are confident that the synagogues will reopen in time for the high holidays. The irony is that parishioners may prefer not to have roofs over their heads because it is safer to be outside than inside, even when services come back.
The fear of a virus is no longer the only fear among Jewish leaders. Now it is feared that many Jewish institutions that rely on attendance, membership fees, and other sources of income may not be able to wait until the crisis is over, whenever that will be over.
I know there are always silver lining like “more Torah learning than ever” and “the amazing adaptability of our church” and “it brings forth the better angels of our nature”.
Our Jewish buildings, like them or not, have served as important meeting places that have held our communities together and nurtured our friendships and feelings for people. With Zoom, it’s all difficult to do.
These silver stripes will not alleviate the disturbances that will affect our community. A Jewish world in which people are encouraged to stay apart for their security is a challenge like no other. Our Jewish buildings, like them or not, have served as important meeting places that have held our communities together and nurtured our friendships and feelings for people. With Zoom, it’s all difficult to do.
Harvard professor Lawrence Summers, who writes in the Financial Times, calls the COVID-19 pandemic a “hinge in history” that “will continue to be seen as pioneering generations of events”.
It will also be a hinge in the history of American Jewry. Yes, we will do our best to adapt. When the time comes, buildings that are still in operation will reconfigure their rooms and set guidelines to minimize security risks, while some may add more importance to the outdoors. In the meantime, we will strive to maintain our shared bonds and we will use our most creative minds to imagine a new and better normal.
But before we plunge into smooth prophecies, let’s take a moment to grasp what’s happening. After a century of uninterrupted construction, our Jewish temples in America suddenly shiver, suddenly empty, and none of us can see exactly where we’re going next.
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