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The Writing on the Wall

Five years of leadership in an “independent minyan” – part of the landscape of innovative or D.I.Y. Jewish projects increasingly littering and challenging the mainstream Jewish organizational framework – kept me safely distant from some of the classic architecture of old synagogue life, the stuff of musty old synagogue basements and chapels. Foremost among these relics are the memorial plaques, those rusting bronze walls of names and dates keeping the cottage industry of “manufacturers of tiny light bulbs” mysteriously in business.

This distance – the greater comfort level with “stacking plastic chairs,” to borrow Ilana Kurshan’s phrase, than fixed pews dedicated by long-dead people – suits well the larger anti-establishment sentiment that is imputed to my Jewish generation, and even the anti-establishment attitude towards the funding structures that define Jewish organizational life in the words of some of the leading Jewish voices in the “Occupy” movement. Names affixed on walls, whether in equally sized plaques or in ornate tree-like structures in foyers, are thought to suggest an over-commodification of wealth as a marker of status in Jewish life, a hierarchy that is untoward in communal structures, and a permanence that invariably veers on stagnation.

And then I found myself with my kids on a Sunday morning at a klezmer concert in the Eldridge Street Synagogue – perhaps once a seat of ‘the establishment,’ and now anything but – and marveling at the extraordinary faux marble plaques at the back of the room which chronicle the synagogue’s original builders for posterity. The plaques make an amusing linguistic move, transliterating English words for the category descriptions into Yiddish (rather than using the corresponding Yiddish word.) The category that stood out for me was “Members.”

For these Lower East Side Jews, and in this representation, membership was not an exclusionary or hierarchical category: membership, rather, was an attempt to take ownership of a project that bespoke pride and joy for a community. In other words, and to use the same language that our independent minyan used for our first membership campaign (in spite of some vigorous objections over this very language), membership had no privileges. Membership was merely the mechanism for people to take responsibility for the upkeep of an organization they held dear, and the building that the community held to be sacred. Often cast as a mechanism for exclusion, it was designed for inclusivity of shared values and visions – like Moses in the desert, shouting to those who would listen and follow God’s word, “Whosoever is for God – follow me!”

In this picture, then, a plaque in a wall is but a tiny and insignificant marker, not the enemy of creativity but a pale reflection of the earnest human attempt to concretize into real life and to say thank you to those whose investment in a community – whose belief in a community – far outweighs whatever mechanisms we can use to say thank you.

And in retrospect, the memorial plaque is one of the oldest and most authentic tools in the Jewish toolkit. Before we know historically what Jews actually did in synagogues – for our knowledge of the history of synagogue architecture precedes our certitude of the history of liturgy – we know that Jews wrote or engraved the names of synagogue benefactors on the walls. These writings go back to possibly as early as the 3rd century BCE, in fragments in Greek across the Mediterranean. Plaques suggest a pride of place, an attachment to the ways in which our philanthropic values can sometimes – with good community organizing methods! – translate into institutions that encompass them and that aspire to bring more people under their roofs.

As for me: I’m obsessed now with these plaques, scanning them for the stories they tell and the aspirations they clearly model. I hope that our generations find comparably tactile and evocative ways to showcase and display the ways our values turn into actions.

Yehuda Kurtzer

Yehuda Kurtzer is President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America (www.shalomhartman.org). His doctoral work focused on the Jews of the ancient Mediterranean, who never saw a building they didn’t want to write on; and his forthcoming book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, aims to bring classical Jewish ideas into dialogue with contemporary Jewish challenges and realities.

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