Paying Tribute to Architects – Betzalel and the Tabernacle

I was recently interviewed by Shmuel Rosner of the Jewish Journal about this week’s Torah portion Teruma for his “Torah Talk” video series. The video interview, which is below, prompted me to think more about architectural design and the credit due to the architect for constructing the structure.

God says, V’asu Li Mikdash, V’shakhanti B’tokham — “Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you.” The function of such a spiritual home for God is difficult to comprehend, and to envision how such a structure will look is confusing as well. Further, who will be the chief architect for such a holy task?  Who is skillful and pious enough to design a home for God? The master artisan chosen is Betzalel, who beautifully implements God’s instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle.  He, like Moses, is a faithful servant of God. He is described as one who has been filled by God with ruach hakodesh, the divine spirit of God in practical wisdom, discernment, and knowledge in all kinds of workmanship.

True, the Torah recounts that Betzalel, the master builder of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, received the blueprints for the project from God, but as I explained, the Torah wouldn’t have paid so much attention to the character of Betzalel were he not an important figure in the building of the Tabernacle.

Several years ago I was at Israel’s Diaspora Museum (Beit Hatefutzot) in Tel Aviv and toured an exhibit displaying synagogues from around the world. Located in a huge room were about twenty architectural models, encased in glass, of the most famous synagogue buildings designed to scale. While I don’t consider myself a student of architecture and design (I leave that up to my wife’s uncle Stephen Sussman), I nevertheless was mesmerized by the different layouts and structural designs, the detail inside the sanctuaries, and the unique shapes of the exterior. They were all different edifices from different places around the world – synagogues from India, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Colonial U.S., and from South America.  Each of these synagogues echoes its cultural and regional diversity. They are all so different, and yet, they all share something in common – they are all holy spaces. They were all built for the same purpose, to be a spiritual house of assembly – a beit kenesset.

Too often today, we take the focus off the actual buildings, the physical structures. We say that what is important is what happens inside of the structure. We believe we must put all our effort on the intangibles, on the actions that take place inside of the building, but we should not overlook the buildings themselves. To do so is to miss beautiful architecture and skillful craftsmanship.

Here in the Metro Detroit area we have two unique synagogue buildings that can be seen from the roadway. Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, Michigan was designed by the world renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1973. Yamasaki, the Japanese and American architect, was of course best known for his design of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Township, Michigan

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Birthright Israel Does 180 on Prior Israel Travel Policy

Part of my job as the associate director of University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in the mid-Aughts was to interview college students for Birthright Israel. On several occasions I had the unfortunate responsibility to explain to Jewish students eager to claim their free 10-day Israel trip that they did not qualify because they had already traveled to Israel with a peer educational trip. That meant that because their parents had spent upwards of $6,000 for them to spend a month in the Jewish Holy Land, they couldn’t claim the Jewish community’s gift that their peers were getting — a completely free Israel experience. It was as if they were being punished for having experienced Israel in high school or on an eighth grade trip with their Jewish day school.
Birthright Israel does 180 on previous Peer Educational Trip Experience Policy

Today, however, Taglit-Birthright Israel significantly changed its policy regarding Jewish youth who had already visited Israel on a peer tour. On the Birthright Israel Facebook page, the world-wide organization posted, “Guess What? Those who participated on peer educational trips to Israel prior to turning 18 years of age are now welcome to apply! Taglit-Birthright Israel will have specific details on eligibility posted on the website the week prior to registration opening on February 19th, 2014.”
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Bar Mitzvah Reflections for Drake on SNL

Yesterday morning in synagogues throughout the world the Jewish people read the portion of the Torah called Yitro. Named for the Medianite priest who became father-in-law to Moses, Yitro (or Jethro) was also a trusted adviser to the Israelite leader. While it doesn’t mention this in the Torah, it is possible that Yitro had black skin which likely meant that Moses was married to a Black woman thereby making them the first bi-racial marriage in the Torah. Today, the most famous rapper with bi-racial Jewish-Black heritage is Drake, who has a White Jewish mother and a Black father.

Last night Drake hosted the year’s first Saturday Night Live show and Jewish and Black stereotypes were getting tossed a mile a minute during his opening monologue. The famous rapper opened the show by explaining that he’s from Canada, was in the TV show Degrassi Junior High, and that his mother is Jewish and his father is Black.

Drake hosting Saturday Night Live - SNL on NBC

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