A Yom Kippur sermon delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, 1984.
A big metropolis with streets full of people and traffic. A busy main street; between two large, unlovely tall buildings a smaller, rather dignified Victorian edifice sits sedately, almost pensively.
There are finely wrought cast iron gates. A gate is open and I slow my pace and go inside. A few lights are on, not many, and the building is dim. I sit for a moment in the nearest pew. I let my mind repose. Muffled sounds are there in the street outside, but too distant to impinge upon my thoughts. Here, all around me, is stillness, almost sanctity.
My glance roams upwards. It touches upon miniscule golden stars looking out from a dark blue ceiling. It discerns a little sunlight gliding over polished pews, giving colour to stained glass, lending brightness to brasswork. I see a richly embroidered Ark curtain, and the moment is quietly suffused with contentment and calm.
I cannot help my mind and imagination evoking childhood spells, of memories, and melodies, of men and women, pre-modern Victorians and Edwardians; the souls of past generations seem to dwell here still.
Said Rabbi Yochanan: “There are three types of charm — the charm a place has for its inhabitants, the charm a woman has for her husband, and the charm a precious purchase has for its purchaser” (Sotah 47a). There is a fourth type of charrn — the charm a Synagogue has for its congregation, especially a mellow, magnificent historic Synagogue such as this.
Yet bricks and mortar, cast iron gates and polished pews, fine brasswork and windows of stained glass — these may have their charm and their dignity, but they do not make a Synagogue. They make a building. It is people that make a Synagogue.
When you and I pass the Great Synagogue we don’t say, “That’s a piece of Victorian-age architecture.” We say, “That’s my Synagogue!” And the word “my” tells the whole story. There is an intimate bond between the building and ourselves. We belong to each other — not in an impersonal, formal sense, but in a warm, intimate kind of way.
The Synagogue is not simply a building. It is new-born babes and little children, it is teenage boys and girls, it is couples standing under the Chuppah. It is middle age and old age. It is faith and family and loyalty and love. It is dear ones and friends, the living and the dead. It is worship and learning, fellowship and counsel, an early morning Minyan and a communal Seder, a distraught wife pouring out her heart, a group of business men reading Mishnah at lunchtime, a group of congregants mending torn prayer-books and exchanging their news; it is children in class and youth rehearsing a play, it is visitors seeing over the Synagogue and Museum, and judges in ermine robes on Law Shabbat.
What makes the Great is its special “mix”, its special flavour, its special areas of competence, its special rollcall of leaders and members.
But let me urge you to recognise the truth on this day when man must tell God the truth and God gives man truthful insight into himself. The Great has its lamedvovniks, its unsung, often unknown stalwarts who come and care and contribute, who respond to the charm so that when they are doing something for the Shule they, like Moses, know not that their faces shine.
But really, so many of our members are so unfair to the Synagogue. They pay lip service but they do not come to service nor do they come forward to render a service to the Shule. You stand outside on the odd occasion when there is no Minyan for a weekday service and your eyes light up when you espy a member walking past, but he says, “Sorry, I’m in a hurry!” and so another member can now not say Kaddish on his Yahrzeit.
So many of our members are unfair to the Synagogue. Many a time the Synagogue and its officials put themselves out to help beyond the call of duty, but memories are short, there is rarely even a “thank you” and hardly ever the sort of nice feeling towards the Shule that might express itself in coming to Shabbat service.
We all know that because of geography we have to make that extra effort if we are coming to a service or activity here. So often, we don’t stir ourselves to make the effort. And it is we who are the losers.
Lawrence of Arabia once brought five Arabs to New York and put them up at the Waldorf Astoria. When the time came for their departure he noticed a suspicious bulkiness in their luggage. He got them to open their suitcases and to his amazement found they were filled with taps from the hotel bathrooms.
“We’ll soon be back home,” one of the Arabs explained, “and water is scarce there. When we’re in the desert and our throats are parched, all we’ll need to do is turn on the taps and we’ll have all the water we need!” Lawrence laughed. “Those taps,” he said, “are no good at all unless they are attached to pipes, and the pipes are no good unless they are connected to a water supply. If all you do is turn on the taps, nothing at all will happen!”
When it comes to your Judaism, unless you remain attached to the sources of Jewish inspiration in the Synagogue, unless there is a regular inflow of the waters of worship and Jewish knowledge going through your very being, then you will dry up as Jews and your children will thirst in the desert for spiritual nourishment and you will have nothing to give them.
As a Synagogue, and a community centre, we at the Great have a great deal to give. Our congregational programme of activities is quite remarkable, and it’s a pity that some members give the impression, “I leave the Shule alone and I want it to leave me alone!” Only if families use the Shule more will the Shule be able to infuse them with the excitement and satisfaction of being fully, authentically, inspiringly Jewish.
Our new Castlereagh Street Centre has endowed us all with an asset that is priceless beyond rubies. When we put it up, we had to assess what we needed and boldly create it. Today we can at last do something about the ideas with which many of us are bursting in terms of facilities for our children and youth and for the community as a whole.
Of course it has cost money but so does everything that is worthwhile. It cost money to put up this Synagogue, but the founding fathers had foresight and committed themselves to spending the money so that we, over a hundred years later, might have a sanctuary so stately and sacred. We in our turn have committed ourselves to the money to give our children and Sydney Jewry a city centre with which they can be happy to build an intimate bond.
Now there is a special dimension of involvement to which we invite every congregant. We would be delighted if you would come forward with an offer of your time and your talents. We have an extraordinarily gifted group of human beings in this congregation. Sometimes we are not, to our shame, quite aware of what each individual member is equipped to do. Please take the initiative: in fully utilising both the Synagogue and the Centre we need every one of your abilities, enthusiasms and ideas.
Have you suggestions? Or criticisms? Grievances? Or grudges? Maybe even a word of praise? Come and let us know. It is people that make a Synagogue. People who say, “That’s my Synagogue!” People who care, people who come, people who contribute.
On Yom Kippur the Synagogue, like Moses, has a smile on its face. On Yom Kippur the Synagogue is at its best, and the congregation at its best. The intimate bond between them is fine and firm, at least for one day. If you desert the Synagogue after today, it will sit pensively, a little sadly, and you will be the losers. If you keep the bond strong throughout the year, the sun will play on the Synagogue and show just a hint of a smile every day, and you will know true joy in your Judaism.