Mensch Craft…community building in progress!

If you are a gamer…that is someone who ‘is into’ video games,
or have children or grandchildren of a certain age,
then you have probably heard of Minecraft.
It’s essentially a game about breaking and placing blocks
but the opportunities for creative problem solving seem to be endless.
The original object of the game was to build structures
to protect against nocturnal monsters,
but since its creation in 2009 players from around the world
have come together across cyberspace
to create wonderful and imaginative things.
To date over 54 million copies of this interactive game have been sold.
It was also just acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion dollars.

This struck me as a rather apt metaphor
for what sacred community building is all about.

Mine craft is universally accessible with a learn on the job appeal.
Even my 8 year old son, Solly, has started to work on his own virtual
community every chance he gets.
He appreciates the ability to work independently
and the chance to craft any kind of ‘viritual’ world he might dream up…
yet until he figures out the collaborative part,
he is unlikely to unlock this games full potential.

Much ink has been spilt since the Pew Report came out last year about the
deconstruction of institutional Judaism, particularly synagogues
And many pundits have offered sage advice on how to re-build
or renovate but I believe the answers ultimately lie within.
Each of us has a core identity on which we build our lives….
a particular concoction of learned behavior and belief,
a drive to define what it is that makes us special and unique
and a desire to be connected with others.


Figuring out how to make it all fit together
is the most sacred task of our lives…
it is nothing less than Mensch crafting….
the never ending self-construction project
and search for meaning and goodness that gives purpose to our lives.

For this very Rosh Hashanah eve marks the beginning
of the re-construction project…. Beckoning us to start fresh,
and imagine what might yet be.
It is the perfect time to consider what tools we require
for community building success.
But before we get caught up in where this all might take us,
We must first study the blueprints for sacred community building
Carefully crafted by our founders….long ago.

It’s one thing to celebrate 140 years of Temple Beth-El.
It’s another to think about what San Antonio
might have been like in the 1870s….
And what it took to establish a Jewish house of worship here.
Back then, this was just a dusty pioneer town filled with men and women
willing to take chances….hungry for a new life.
Just like our patriarch Abraham, who with little more than a call from God…
Lech Lecha…Go forth!
Set out on a journey to ‘a land that God will show him.’
Most of these pioneers had left their past behind…
in Bavaria or Prussia….France, Russia and Poland
in search of a better future for themselves and their family.
America…and South Texas were their Promised land.
Each was a risk taker and yet they yearned for something of their past
to anchor them in their new lives,
which is why a group of 44 men came together
with the idea of forming a Jewish congregation back in 1874.

It was not always an easy road and there were crisis of leadership,
finance and vision along the way
but by the time Temple Beth-El’s 3rd building
was constructed in 1920s (and finally dedicated in ’27),
this house of God was home to almost 400 families
and long past its ‘getting established’ phase.
According to our Temple Archivist Candy Gardner,
the decision to build here on Belknap was made to a certain extent
with our Patriarch Abraham in mind,
a man known for his sense of justice, his generosity to strangers
and his ultimate faith in God.
The leaders of our congregation purchased this piece of land
with a sense of purpose and pride.

For not only was this a beautiful neighborhood
With many other houses of worship nearby
but this spot, high on the hill was a statement in and of itself.
Just think about it.
Whether you drive in from 1-10, or come down W. Ashby
or up San Pedro Ave
our majestic dome stands forth like a beacon of hospitality and stability.
Imagine the visual statement it made 87 years ago
before the Tennis Courts, the Sonic…
even the college of San Antonio were obstructing the view.

The Dome declares, there is a Jewish community in San Antonio
and we are proud of our heritage and our God.
It declares, there is Jewish community in San Antonio and
we will take care of our own.
It declares, there is a Jewish community in San Antonio
and we will reach out to others in fellowship.

This sense of history of pride and connectedness
was incredibly appealing to me
as I embarked on a congregational search last year.
Despite growing up on Long Island, the stereotypical land of the Jews,
I recognized long ago that my parents were pioneers in their own right.
Though it was my great grandparents on both sides
that emigrated to the United States at the turn of the last century,
both my mother and father were the 1st in their families to attend college.
Both left the security of home… to craft an identity of their own making…
with a deep commitment to family and a strong connection to Temple life
from worship to holiday celebration to social justice work,
they took charge of the future for themselves and their children….
modeling menschlchkeit all the way.

Many of the families that built this synagogue
 are still strongly represented in our congregation to this day.
The dedication and commitment to community
that has kept them connected for so many generations
is a source of great pride for us.
And though it is, I know, a bit of a pain for many of us
to commute ‘almost down town’ if we want to be at Temple,
know that every time you walk through these doors,
the commitment and connection of those pioneering generations
is brought to life again.

Abraham may have had that pioneering spirit,
but it was Moses who led us on our journey to the promised land.
Having escaped slavery in Egypt,
and received the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai

The Israelites are instructed to build a traveling sanctuary….the Mishkan
as they make their way towards Canaan.
Two talented artists…Bezalel and Oholiab
are appointed to oversee the project
And then as God commands,
Moses implores the people to give of their hearts:
kichu mei-etem terumah ladonai…take from among you gifts to Adonai;
everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring them- gifts for Adonai.

And people bring…gold, silver and copper, blue purple and crimson yarns,
fine linen and goats hair; tanned ram skins, dolphins skin and acacia wood,
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense,
lapis lazuli and other stones as well.

They bring so much…in fact,
that in the end Moses had to put a halt to the giving…
The enthusiasm and generosity,
the desire to be part of something powerful
and beautiful and meaningful was astounding.
And so, with ample materials and overflowing generosity and spirit
the sacred task was begun.

Our Temple is obviously a permanent structure.
But if your eyes have ever wandered around the room during services….
you may have marveled at the Roman arches
and Byzantine pendentives
the Italian marble ark and beautiful carved bronze doors….
those who designed this building were moved to construct
a Mishkan for their own day. 
A sanctuary that was as spacious and serene
as it was majestic and beautiful.

Many years later, first to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Temple in 1974
and then again in 1983 in honor of Rabbi Jacobson and his wife, Helen,
two exquisite tapestries were crafted to grace our sanctuary walls.

On your left….symbols of our faith and on your right the story of creation….
designed by Janet Shuck and Zelim Mathews.
And just like Betzalel and Oholibab worked with other skilled artisans
to create the tapestries for the Mishkan,
Marge Miller was appointed to oversee this sacred Temple task…
she along with so many other members gave generously
of their time and skill but also of their funds
to make those projects come alive.
For our tapestries too were a most holy offering to God
and to the community.

There are many other meaningful objects such as these
that were created for or donated to Temple
that help tell the story of our community.
Each given with love and purpose….
each a sacred offering in their own right.
They are to be cherished and valued along with the
the offerings of the heart that so many continue to give
to make our Temple beautiful today.
For we too have gifts of the heart to give.

Whether you are a weaver, painter, needle worker or musician,
A baker or cook, writer, graphic designer, social justice advocate,
Or any of the other myriad of volunteers
who offer up the work of their hands and hearts on a weekly basis or more,
it is the fact that we do it together…
united in one purpose that keeps our construction project going strong.

Indeed each person’s offering matters for its own sake…
as Rabbi Mordechai of Izbica taught about the Mishkan contruction: 
Through the building of the Tabernacle all Israel were joined in their hearts.
No one felt superior to his fellow.
Once they saw how their varied contributions fit together,
as if one person had done it all,
they realized how each one of them truly depended upon the other.
And so as a result, the one who made the Holy Ark itself
was unable to feel superior to the one
who had only made the courtyard tent-pegs.

In my own life, I have experienced this truth first hand.
Many people have been impressed with the fact
that I studied flute at Julliard when I was in high school,
and it does look incredibly fancy on a resume.
But as awesome an experience as it was to perform major symphonic works
with exceptional young classical musicians….
one I would never trade in a lifetime,
I was also, most definitely, not top of the class.
At first, knowing I had 1st chair status back home,
Made this, ‘ordinary musician status’ difficult to take
And yet along the way I came to understand
that sitting in the center of an orchestra
doing my part to make it all come together was magic in and of itself.

I may have only been a tent peg maker
in the symphonic version of Miskhan construction
but in retrospect it was a most holy experience nonetheless.

And I came to understand that whatever our gifts,
whatever our offerings,
each has its place in the makeup of our holy congregation.
So when I see our Shalom Committee greating so warmly
or a baker proudly laying out the beautiful oneg they have prepared,
or a volunteer working the sound board at a service…
or members showing up for their weekly delivery for meals on wheels
I am inspired by the strength of community I see.  

But whatever it is you have to give: a caring heart, a patient ear,
a steady hand, a thoughtful mind. …please know every bit counts.
It is your offering combined with those of all the others
that keeps us sacred and strong.
Without them the foundation of our congregation would crumble.

The thing about this kind of building project,
is that it is never actually complete.
And we are definitely mid-build. We probably always will be.
Sure the foundation that has been laid is solid and strong.
But whether your family has been here for generations
or you decided to join this week, your perspective, your talents,
your hearts are all required to make sure that Beth-El…Beit El…
feels not only like a house of God
but a spiritual home for all who are seeking….
We must keep mensch crafting together!!

This may feel like a tall order for some…..
After all, we are not just at the beginning of a new year,
but also at a new phase in our congregation’s existence.
So much looks and even feels different right now….
from the three female clergy on the bimah
To the many tweaks and changes that come with a new senior rabbi.

And yet that core infrastructure and commitment remain the same.
Rabbi David Jacobson, said it quite well back in 1949,
writing for Temple’s Diamond Jubilee journal:
he could have been writing to us this very day.

Temple Beth-El is a family- ideally a devoted family,
bound to each other and associated as brothers and sisters
to worship and serve God.
The congregation is not stone and steel and glass and lumber.
It is a cooperative venture, a family of good people
who wish to give rather than take,
who intend to worship and work to participate
in all of our religious educational, cultural and recreational functions…
Every mitzvah, every duty is an opportunity.
… In no sense at all should the Temple ever have outsiders.
We are all in the inner circle, all working together,
all knowing that we are friends and relatives.

This commitment to each other, and to all that Temple represents
is the legacy of our past just as it is our hope for the future.
From the early years with Rabbi Marks and Rabbi Tedesche (Ta-desky),
to Rabbis Frisch and Sajowitz,
through the beloved leadership of Rabbi Jacobson and Rabbi Stahl
who graces us with his kindness, intellect and gracious presence still…
of Rabbi Block and Rabbi Crystal….we have seen many changes…

In so many ways Jewish San Antonio in 2014 is light years away
from what it must have been at our congregation’s inception…
leadership style, demographics….worship practices…
nothing is exactly as it was before.….
And yet, so much of what united us then
continues to inspire us to come together today.

When we first bought Minecraft for the kids’ x-box. I tried to figure it out.
But it seemed too complicated so I soon put it down and walked away.
Solly seemed to understand the rules of play pretty easily,
and curious I asked him how he had figured it out.
“That’s easy mommy”, he said, “I just read the tutorial.”

Unfortunately there is no ‘ultimate how to guide’
for the process of Mensch Crafting.
It is no easy enterprise….it takes commitment, caring
and lots and lots of effort on everyone’s part.
Yet if we open our eyes and our hearts, tutorials abound.
We have proud legacy members
who are willing to share the history of our community.
You all keep us connected to the stories and simchas
of our congregation’s past.
We have a strong volunteer core and a committed leadership
who are poised and ready to engage more members
in the spirit and service of Temple life….no experience necessary…
And we have all of this…..
The strength of a growing congregation…filled with warmth and excitement and
dare I say even anticipation as we make ready
to add another addition to the blueprint of our congregation’s history… together.

So as we begin this New Year of 5775…
may we all be dedicated to this idea and ideal of mensch-crafting….
Sharing sweetness and kindness and compassion
with all our fellow members of Temple Beth-El
not just at this News Years moment…
but in all the days and years that we will be together that are still to come.
In this way our congregation will be sacred inside and out,
building upon the gifts, talents, spirit and strength
of those who have come before us, those who are here right now….
building a strong legacy for those who are yet to be…