What is in a Name?

Delivered on 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah 5773….

L’shanah Tovah!  I thought I’d begin by sharing with you some words that I never expected hear coming out of my mouth on the High Holidays:  “Welcome to Temple Sinai!!”  All joking aside, we are incredibly grateful to the leaders of Temple Sinai who have graciously opened their doors to us not only today, but all through the summer.  We are fortunate to have such good neighbors.

But, in reality, what would cause a Conservative congregation to turn to a Reform congregation – the “COMPETITION” no less – for a place to hold its High Holiday services?  It would have to be something pretty important to make us want to do that, right?

Well, the truth is that we are in fact engaged in a most important project – we are consecrating new sacred space, we are building our spiritual home for the next generation.  If I hadn’t been sure that this construction project was a big deal, then you all proved it to me on the internet.  How so (you may ask)?  I’ll tell you.  I have experimented with all sorts of on-line communication – Facebook group, Facebook page, Linkedin group, a blog, a weekly email, and yes, this past year, I even tweeted for the first time.

But nothing – NOTHING! – I have done on the internet has garnered as much reaction as my posting of pictures of the construction.  No matter how small the change from the previous picture, I know that I will get comments and ‘like’s.  When I bump into people at the store or talk to people after services, they tell me how much they enjoy seeing the pictures.  In fact, I was going to just show the pictures instead of giving a sermon this morning.  But, well, I couldn’t figure out how to do it without breaking the laws of the Festival.

There’s a reason that the pictures strike a chord, though.  Part of it is the fascination of watching something being built from the ground up – this is especially true for Jewish men for whom a toolbox is one of life’s great mysteries.  But, more than that, this is important to us.

The quest for the ideal space in which to reach out to God is neither unique to us nor new.  Yesterday, in the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about Hannah.  She went to a place of worship for support as a result of her infertility.  Upon arriving, she began to pray and weep with great fervor.

Eli, the priest, saw her moving lips, but heard no voice emanating.  He assumed she was drunk and tried to kick her out.  But then Eli did something very interesting.  He set aside that knee-jerk reaction to remove her from the sanctuary, engaged her, prayed with her and spoke with her.  He eventually bade her farewell by saying:  “Lechi l’shalom, v’Elohei Yisrael yiten et-sheylatech asher sha-alt me-imo – Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant this request which you have made.”

This story reminds us that everyday people like Hannah have been looking for sacred space since the beginning of time.  And people like Eli have made sacred space through the way in which they treat their fellow human beings.  THIS is the foundation upon which all synagogues are built.

So, when did we begin building synagogues?

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I was taught that the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE and a group of rabbis thought it would be a great idea to build synagogues where people could pray instead of offering sacrifices.  And thus, synagogues were born.

In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that.  The archaeological record tells us that synagogues existed prior to the destruction of the Temple.  People who lived in Jerusalem – the focal point of the Israelite religion – may not have needed anything other than the Temple.  But for people who lived in outlying areas in the Land of Israel or beyond, an annual trip to Jerusalem or a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Jerusalem was simply not enough.

People needed a place to congregate, they needed a place to reach out to God and they needed a place in which to learn more about their tradition.  And so even before the destruction of the Temple, Jews outside of Jerusalem did what our SJCC community is now doing – they pooled their resources and built a place to meet their communal needs.  Sure, they would send offerings to Jerusalem on the appropriate occasions – just as we support Israel today – but their spiritual home was much closer to their actual homes.  And that is how the synagogue was born.

So, when the Temple was destroyed, the synagogues were already there to provide comfort, solace and even a place in which to ask “why?”  The synagogue as an institution and a structure became so important to our people so quickly that we have three different names for it Hebrew (just like Inuit people have all those different names for snow).  And each name tells us a little about what a Synagogue can offer to all of us – regardless of our stage of life.

The first name is Beit Tefillah, which corresponds most closely to the English name Temple.  It means a House of Prayer or Center of Worship.  It means that this is the place where we come to reach out to God, the place where we can stand shoulder to shoulder with other people seeking God.  The Talmud teaches us:  “A man to whom a calamity has occurred should make it known to the public, so that many people may entreat God’s mercy for him (BT Hullin 78a).”  We understand the power that a faith community can have in the life of an individual.  We all have our own stresses, worries, concerns.  We also have common concerns.

Just last week, we observed the 11th anniversary of 9/11.  Although I lived in Pittsburgh at the time, far away from Ground Zero, I remember how individuals would come to the synagogue in the days and weeks following that horrible day.  They would come at odd times, just to sit in the chapel and pray by themselves.  In Psalm 27, the psalm that we add to our service daily during this season of repentance, we ask God to grant us refuge in the House of Adonai.  We understand the power of prayer space.  It should be a place where we can block out distractions and reach out to God.

The second name by which the structure we are building is known in Hebrew is Beit Midrash, which corresponds most closely to the name shul.  The Yiddish word “shul” comes from the same Germanic root as our English word “school.”  A Beit Midrash is a House of Study, the Seat of Learning.  However, this means more than just religious school.  We have educational programming for everyone from pre-school to senior.  The Cantor, Barbara Bearg, Stacey David and I know that many of you entrust us to teach your children the fundamentals of Judaism.  But as good as we may be – and I think we’re pretty good – it is not enough.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (Hasidic Rabbi in early 18th century Poland), known in Yiddish as the Kotzker Rebbe taught:  “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence.  They will follow your example.  Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so.”  The modern corollary is that if you drop your kids off at the synagogue, then one day, your children will drop their children off at the synagogue.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of “Drop-Off” Judaism.  We must ask ourselves, “Is the synagogue the place that we take our kids for religious training, or is the synagogue the center of Jewish life for our family?”  If we are only a training ground for children – no matter how well we do it – we are not living up to the standards of being a Beit Midrash.

In designing our new building, we did not choose to create a sanctuary that would accommodate the entire congregation three days a year.  Instead, we chose to build more classroom space for children AND adults to ensure that our new structure will indeed be a Beit Midrash.

The third name by which this building is known in Hebrew is Beit K’nesset, which corresponds most closely to the name Synagogue.  In fact they both mean the same thing: House of Assembly or Place of Gathering.  Even a rabbi knows that a synagogue is more than a place to pray and study.  It is the place where we create community.  Social experiences are as important as academic or spiritual ones.

As I think about some of the most memorable functions from the last few years – Casino Night, the Big Quiz Thing, Cabaret & Cabernet, our 2nd Bat Mitzvah party – they were social in nature.  And that’s OKAY!  If the synagogue is not a place that you want to come and if it’s not a place that your children want to come, then the quality of our programming is irrelevant.

Thanks to these three names, we understand that synagogue is not just a place to pray, it is not just a place to learn and it is not just place to come together with our fellow Jews.  It is all three of these things and more – because a synagogue is more than just the sum of these three parts – because they overlap.

Consider this teaching from the Talmud (BT Brachot 6a): One who comes to the synagogue regularly and does not come one day causes God to ask about his welfare.”  Do I believe that God has to ask about me when I miss minyan?  No.  I assume that God can find me if God so desires.

But, when a regular is not at minyan, not at Shabbat services, people come up to the Cantor, the Minyan Captain or me and ask if anyone knows anything.  We mobilize to try and find out if something has happened.  We become God’s agents in looking after the “regulars.”  THAT is what makes us a community.  What may begin as a prayer experience becomes a social concern.

A synagogue is never JUST a place a pray or JUST a place to learn or JUST a place to congregate.  It is always all of these things and more.

In the first half of the 20th Century, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan – a teacher at JTS for a half-century, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and a congregational rabbi – was the first to refer to a synagogue as a Jewish Center or a Center of Jewish Life. He said a synagogue ought to “bring Jews together…for social, cultural and recreational purposes in addition to worship.”

His words gave rise to the JCC movement, leading to facilities like the ones in Whippany, Scotch Plains and West Orange – where Jews can work out, play ball, swim, eat, dance, see a show and so much more.  His words also inspired synagogues to call themselves JCC’s – like the Summit JCC. These congregations hoped to combine the traditional mission of the synagogue – praying, learning and socializing – together with the cultural and recreational activities of which Kaplan wrote.

As wonderful as Kaplan’s idea sounded, though, it proved to be TOO much for any one institution to pull off on its own.  So, both JCC’s and synagogues ceded some turf to the other. In an unwritten agreement, synagogues stepped away from the recreational activities that were central to a JCC’s mission.  Similarly, JCC’s steered clear of religious services and formal Jewish education.

Now, are there synagogues with basketball courts?  Sure.  When I lived in LA, there was even a shul with a pool!  And are there JCC’s that provide effective Jewish educational programming?  Of course.  But, in general, despite some overlap, JCC’s and synagogues stick to their separate missions.

Which brings me back to our synagogue and our construction project.  Back in 1929, when our congregation was established as the ‘Summit Jewish Community Centre,’ Mordecai Kaplan’s vision for what a synagogue could be was still new and it was still seen as possible.  There were no JCC’s as we know them today.

But, today, our name causes confusion.  People call up asking for our pool hours and which machines we have in our weight room.  Still others don’t realize that there is a synagogue at the corner of Morris Avenue and Kent Place Boulevard because SJCC doesn’t sound like a synagogue.

Our new structure will begin to address this issue.  It will be hard to drive by the striking structure in the shape of a folded Jewish star without recognizing that it is a sanctuary.  But, the building of such sacred space also presents us with an opportunity to consider how we want to think of ourselves, how we want to present ourselves to the community and how we want to promote ourselves to prospective members.

It is for all of those reasons that I think it’s time that we add a Hebrew name to our community.  Please not that I said we should ADD a Hebrew name.  I am not suggesting that we discard the name “Summit JCC.”  After 83+ years, it is part of us and part of our identity.  And even though we have ceded some activities to the JCC’s in Whippany, West Orange and Scotch Plains, we still seek to provide all kinds of programming.  But, just like Jewish people have both English and Hebrew names, our synagogue can have a Hebrew name as well.

Just as with naming a child, it will take a lot of time to research a name and choose a name that reflects our history and our hopes, our traditions and our traits.  But, I think it could be a wonderful conversation to have as a community.

So, as we go forward into this year of 5773 – the year in which the dream of our new physical structure will become a reality – let us take this opportunity to think about the kind of congregation we are and want to be.  Let us re-commit to being a place of praying, learning and socializing.  Let us re-commit to being a center of Jewish life for Jews in Summit, New Providence, Berkeley Heights, Chatham, Short Hills  and the other surrounding communities that we serve.

Then, let’s see if we can come up with a Hebrew name that will reflect all that we do and – at the same time –  make us easier to find for those who are searching.



L’Shanah Tovah,



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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