This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) is Parshat Terumah. It deals with the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that Bnai Yisrael (The Israelites) used as they were traveling through the desert from Egypt to Israel. The Mishkan was to be a place where the people could worship, communicate and get closer to God. As it says in Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 25 Line 8, “They shall make a Mikdash (a Sanctuary) for Me- so that I may dwell among them.” In other words, the Mishkan was to be God’s house on earth. When you would enter the Mishkan it would be as if you were “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” This is what the Synagogue experience is supposed to be like today. In that context I would like to share a story with you. The story is true. The names, places and certain details have been changed to protect the innocent and even the guilty.
A man by the name of Barry Kamtza recently attended Shabbat morning services at a synagogue called Beth El (Beit El – House of God) with his young daughter and son. He was unaffiliated and decided that he might be interested in joining a synagogue, so he decided to try out Beth El. The Kamtza children were very well behaved during services. In fact, they were better behaved than some of the adults present. After services, during Kiddush (a light meal served after Shabbat morning services), Mr. Kamtza was struggling to get the children’s coats on. It was not easy; the children were fidgety after such a long time being quiet in synagogue. As he was struggling to get them dressed, a group of synagogue regulars who were enjoying Kiddush watched the struggling father and his children. One of them, Dan Benjamin, without making any move to assist Mr. Kamtza, loudly remarked in a cruel voice, “I don’t know why people bring their children to synagogue.”
Shocked, Mr. Kamtza turned and asked Dan Benjamin, “Why would you say such a thing to me and my children?” “How can you talk that way?” Dan Benjamin angrily replied, “How dare you criticize me? I will talk to you or anyone else in this synagogue however I want to. This is MY synagogue.” Dan Benjamin proceeded to identify each of the lay positions he held in the synagogue and the committees he sat on. He concluded this diatribe by pointing to the several plaques honoring him on the synagogue wall behind Mr. Kamtza to let him know to the exact penny the large sum of money that he donated over the years to the synagogue.
Scenes like this hopefully do not occur regularly in most synagogues, but it is sadly the case that many synagogues are simply not welcoming, particularly to strangers. When you visit Disney World, from the time you board the monorail to the time you approach your first ride, an average of six Disney employees say, “Hello! Welcome to Disney World.” It is even possible that you will receive a hug from Mickey Mouse.
In contrast, in many synagogues in the United States, from the time a stranger enters the synagogue’s main door on Shabbat to the time he or she chants Adon Olam (the last prayer sung at Shabbat morning services), an average of ZERO congregants say, “Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to our synagogue” and give him or her a hand shake, let alone a hug. When you are a newcomer to a synagogue, you are lucky if you find the entrance to the building. If you do, you then walk into the lobby and receive no friendly greeting. You go from the lobby to the sanctuary and still no one says hello. You finally sit down and someone comes running over – to welcome you? No. To tell you that you are sitting in someone else’s seat.
When I broach this topic with synagogue lay leaders and professionals they typically respond that THEIR synagogue is very welcoming. However, the synagogue lay leaders and professionals who represent their institution are synagogue “insiders,” and, as in many other contexts, the perspective of the insider is very different than that of the outsider, the stranger. A less-than-welcoming attitude can also be experienced by a synagogue member who attends irregularly. Sometimes, when a synagogue member who does not regularly attend comes to services, the reaching out that COULD come from the “regulars” – the extra warmth that makes a return visit a possibility – is replaced with an attitude of chastisement – “you should be here more often.” Sometimes intentional, sometimes not, but in either case certain to ensure that the uninvolved congregant will not return.
What can be done to make a synagogue more welcoming? Antidotes to unfriendliness are occurring in synagogues throughout America, but they need to be more universally practiced. A synagogue, for instance, can have official greeters who welcome people at the door, help them to find seats, hand them a siddur (prayer book), identify where in the siddur the service is, and invite them to the Kiddush at the synagogue (or lunch after services at the home of the rabbi or an involved congregant). Perhaps the rabbi, instead of being way up there on the Bimah, can sit with the congregation for a bit, moving around the room, giving numerous individuals an opportunity to be near the rabbi. The rabbi might even station him or herself at the door so that he or she can be the first person to welcome someone new to synagogue. Obviously all of these practices should be done without interrupting the service and can be: a person can have a smile on his or her face, shake someone’s hand and offer a siddur opened to the right page without saying a word.
However, even if a synagogue were to implement each of these changes, that synagogue will not be truly welcoming if it does not understand that welcoming a stranger is the sacred obligation of the entire Jewish community. The most repeated mitzvah in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger. The mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests, is one of the first mitzvot taught in the Torah as demonstrated by the world’s very first Jews, Avraham and Sarah. The Brit, the covenant, was formulated in the context of Avraham and Sarah fulfilling this mitzvah (Bereishit/Genesis 18:1-8).
Remember what Dan Benjamin said: “This is MY Synagogue.” We have, to some degree, inadvertently made synagogues private clubs for the elite. The synagogue “elite” are typically those who donate a majority of the funds and those in lay leadership positions. It can be easy – seemingly even natural – for this population to feel ownership of the synagogue. From ownership a sense of entitlement can sometimes result. In fact, well meaning institutions today talk about encouraging congregants to buy in, to be stakeholders, to have a sense of ownership. However, perhaps what we need to do is to remind ourselves that a synagogue is a Beit El, a house of God. People may manage a synagogue, but they do not own it. In our story Dan Benjamin seems to have forgotten that he is in Beth El, a house of God. In every synagogue in America there is a Dan Benjamin or a Daniella Benjamin who needs to be reminded that the synagogue is not their house; it is a house of God where everyone is welcome. If we truly wish to be “Knockin On Heaven’s Door” and get closer to God when we are in synagogue, then we first have to open the doors wide to our synagogues and welcome every single person who walks in with kindness and love. If we can do this, we can do something even more spectacular than “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” We can open “Heaven’s Door” and heaven and earth can come together. Let every member, lay leader and Jewish professional associated with a synagogue work towards the day where everyone is always welcome in every house of God.
This week’s title is “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which is a song that was composed and recorded by Minnesota’s favorite Jewish son, the great Robert Zimmerman, more commonly known as Bob Dylan. Dylan wrote the song for the soundtrack of the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which was released in 1973. It reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song is about a dying deputy who can not do his job anymore.
The song has been covered by a number of artists. Let’s start with the greatest band in the land, the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead performed, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” 76 times. The first time was on July 4, 1987 at Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Ma. It was the encore. Bob Dylan performed the song with the Grateful Dead that night. In fact Bob Dylan joined the Grateful Dead for the entire second set which was made up Dylan songs. There were several other concerts during this time period where the Grateful Dead performed with Bob Dylan. On July 7, 1989, the Grateful Dead played the song as an encore at John F. Kennedy Stadium (JFK) in Philadelphia. It was not known at the time, but this would be the last song ever played at JFK. JFK was condemned 6 days after the concert. Bruce Hornsby & The Range opened that night. The last time the Grateful Dead performed, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” was July 23, 1994 at Soldiers Field, Chicago, Il. The song was also the encore that night. Traffic opened the concert.
Jerry Garcia, the incredible lead guitarist of the The Grateful Dead played, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” in concert with a number of other Bands including the Jerry Garcia Band. He recorded it on the album Run For The Roses (1982). It was also on the following albums that were released after his death in 1995: The Pizza Tapes (2000) All Good Things: Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions (2004), Garcia Plays Dylan (2005).
Guns N’ Roses performed the song in concert a number of times in 1987. A live recording of the song was released as part of the Maxi-Single of, “Welcome to the Jungle.” Guns N’ Roses did a studio version in 1990 for the soundtrack of the film Days of Thunder. This version was altered for the 1991 album Use Your Illusion II. It was released as the fourth single from this album. It made it to #2 on the United Kingdom Singles Chart as well as #12 on Australian Singles Chart and #1 on the Ireland Singles Chart. Guns N’ Roses played the song in 1992 as part of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert this version was used for B-side of the single release. It was also included as part of their Live Era: ‘87–’93 album, which was released in 1999.
The Alarm performed the song in concert several times. When The Alarm would serve as an opener for Dylan, they came on stage and played the song together with him. In 2003 Warren Zevon did his own version of the song on his album, The Wind. Zevon died of cancer in September of that year. In August 2010 U2 played this song with Russian musician Yuri Shevchuk.
Eric Clapton did a reggae version of it as a single in 1975. “Someone Like You” was the B-side. A live version (London in April 1977) of the song also appears on Clapton’s Crossroads 2: Live in the Seventies album (1996). “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” also appears on his 1982 album Time Pieces: The Best of Eric Clapton.
To see a live performance by The Grateful Dead of Bob Dylan’s, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” click HERE. The performance was from a show on July 7, 1989 at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, PA.