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The Whole Spiel

Sacred Spaces are Where the Heart is 

December 10, 2020

As we approach month ten of quarantine, we also approach the end-of-year holiday season. For most Americans this means Christmas; but for those of us who identify with Judaism, Chanukah is right around the corner.  

1991.02.1 Hanukiah, CJM collections

Over the past few months Jewish people across the United States had to quickly adapt to socially distanced or at-home services for our holidays, especially the ones that mark the beginning of the Lunar Calendar year in September. It may not have been what we wanted to do, but it was the law, for our own safety, and, as I talked about in a previous blog post, in the name of pikuach nefesh; the Jewish ideal that even the most sacred of traditions can be altered in the name of one’s health. 

It is no question, however, that many may still feel uneasy about conducting rituals in their own homes and away from others that are traditionally done in synagogue and amidst peers. I am, in fact, one of those people. But alongside pikuach nefesh, there is another idea that has kept me connected to my Judaism through this pandemic, even when I had to stay in my home during the most sacred of our holidays: a sacred space can be wherever you want it to be. 

The idea was introduced to me one summer at Camp Ramah in New England during the weekly D’var Torah that Director Rabbi Ed Gelb would give just before we began Kabbalat Shabbat. He stood before the entire camp and asked us what we thought of when he said the phrase “sacred space.” Immediately I thought of my synagogue; and when he asked us to say our answers out loud, it was evident that others did as well. He then told us how any place could be sacred if we wanted it to be; and that all we had to do was make it so.  

My sacred space

That D’var Torah has stuck with me all these years. And during this pandemic it has been brought to the forefront of my mind. And the funny thing is, the concept does not only apply to Judaism. When schools closed in March and learning was shifted online, my room became my school. I altered my desk and the surrounding area to fit my needs as a student. I made my desk a sacred space for school. And I have done the same for my Judaism. My living room has become the place where my parents watch the Shabbat evening livestreams on the Adas Israel website. My room has become my Hebrew School, as I invite the Ma’alot program onto my computer every Tuesday night. 

Granted, Chanukah is not a very at-synagogue holiday for me and my family, as most of the rituals take place during the evening and at home; but there are certainly aspects of it that are traditionally done in synagogue. But if anything, that makes it a perfect example of how the Jewish people have already made a sacred space in their home for a holiday. This year, like most, my family will set up our Chanukiot on the ledge in our living room, in front of a window for the whole world to see, even when this year we can’t see the world.