I spent many summers prior to entering Rabbinical School and becoming a rabbi on the road, traveling with fifty teenagers on a cross-country bus tour for six and a half weeks as part of the USY on Wheels summer program. Joshua Ull recently wrote a wonderful article for CJ Voices about the powerful experience of USY on Wheels. To me, as a staff member and educator, the beauty of USY on Wheels was that it was a travelling community. No matter where we went, we prayed together, learned together, socialized together, and grew together as a family. Even though I haven’t staff USY on Wheels in many years, a true highlight for me as rabbi at the Jacksonville Jewish Center is our annual visit for the USY on Wheels East bus. We love hosting participants at our congregation when they travel to Florida’s First Coast.
On such a summer program, we offered the teenagers a plethora of unique and different prayer experiences and prayer environments. When the USYers would be hosted for home hospitality visits, they would pray with the synagogue community and were introduced to different congregations across North America. Shabbat was spent at hotels where each bus would create its own prayer space, turning a conference meeting room into a makom kodesh, a sacred space and sanctuary. We davened Shacharit, the morning service, at the Grand Canyon during sunrise and davenned Mincha, the afternoon service, while overlooking the majestic beauty of creation at Niagara Falls. Still, of all my summers staffing and leading USY on Wheels busses, the most powerful davening experience took place at a truck stop.
Yes, a truck stop. While taking a break from an early morning long drive (in which we departed when it was still pitch black outside) to refill the tank, reload on snacks, eat breakfast, and use the restrooms, we found a space in the parking lot and began draping ourselves in tallitot and wrapping tefillin. The initial concerns of some USYers about praying in such a public domain that they had expressed earlier in the summer had quickly faded. They took turns leading services, davening loudly, full of ruach. In a weird way, that parking lot had become more of a makom kodesh than any other place where we had prayed that summer. There was no sanctuary, no ark, and no pews to help us identify it as sacred space. There was no crater, waterfall, lake, sunrise, or sunset to help us appreciate God’s creations. There were only busses and eighteen-wheelers, gas pumps, a convenience store, and bathrooms. And community. And God. Our community of fifty USYers and five staff members turned that parking lot and that truck stop into our sanctuary.
This Shabbat, we read Parashat Terumah in which the Israelites are given the initial instructions regarding how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness. The Israelites were commanded to bring gifts, if their hearts desired, of gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, linen, ram and dolphin skins, and acacia wood. God’s command found in Exodus 25:8 is a simple and powerful one:
V’asu Li Mikdash, v’shachanti B’tocham.
Make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among you.
The beauty of the Mishkan compared to the Beit Mikdash, the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, is that the Tabernacle was temporary. The Mishkan moved with the Israelites. While the Torah portion may focus on the gifts and materials needed to make such a sanctuary, the most important aspect of that sanctuary was the people – the community. Wherever they traveled and wandered in the desert, they built their sanctuary.
As we celebrate the beauty of our sanctuaries this Shabbat, let us remember the most important part of those sanctuaries: us. More so than buildings, more so than nature, it is the people within that space who turn that space into a sacred space, who help all recognize that God is present, and was always present. So let us truly celebrate community, for it is community that turns our spaces into sacred spaces. It is coming together as community that allows God to fulfill God’s promise of “shachanti b’tocham”, that God will dwell among us. This allows us to find God in our synagogue buildings, in nature, and yes, even at truck stops.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky