The sanctuary in which I had my bar mitzvah is lined with 1,109 light bulbs.
They shine in Congregation Sherith Israel, which opened in 1905 and was the largest structure in San Francisco to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire. Electricity would not become widespread in the city’s homes until the next decade, so in the sanctuary’s first years, the light bulbs likely added an extra sense of wonder to evening services.
Today, the sanctuary’s most prominent features are its large dome, stained-glass window of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and 3,500-pipe organ.
Climbing the tight, dark staircase to the top of the dome as a Hebrew school student and watching the sunset bring out the yellows and reds in the stained glass introduced me to the power of the space. It also brought to mind the image of a congregant at the turn of the last century walking into what must have been a breathtaking display of light.
In his book “God in Search of Man,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes awe as “an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.” Heschel believed that awe is such a powerful experience it cannot be expressed in words, and that this experience is the source of religion.
More than anything, the Sherith Israel sanctuary — the foundation for my Jewish experience — has imparted awe. And yet, what comes next? Heschel wrote that the root of religion lies in the question, “What [is one] to do with awe, wonder and amazement?” How does the Jewish tradition tell us to proceed?
If the sanctuary itself can help provide an answer, a starting point is that community — like the congregation gathered there — is essential for Judaism. Next, the verses and biblical images on the walls and windows of the sanctuary speak to the centrality of following Jewish law.
The sanctuary boasts architectural features that draw from other cultures. Some of the arches replicate those of Istanbul’s mosque Hagia Sophia, which itself is a hybrid of Byzantine and Islamic cultures. This design shows how Judaism has evolved and will continue to evolve as one of many interlaced cultures.
The prospect of balancing the complexity of modern life and the intricacies of thousands of years of Jewish tradition can seem daunting. And yet the sanctuary urges us to go ahead.
When I spoke with him last month, Sherith Israel Rabbi Larry Raphael explained that he believes three elements of the sanctuary tell the story of how the congregants of more than a century ago saw their Jewish lives.
First, there is the stained-glass window of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments not at Sinai but at Half Dome in Yosemite. This is a statement about how the predominantly Polish émigrés of the congregation saw California as a Promised Land. Here they finally had the freedom to practice Judaism in the way they saw fit.
The opposite window shows the Prophet Isaiah performing acts of charity. This reflects the congregants’ sense of obligation to perform tzedakah and work for social justice.
The third and final element is a verse from Micah inscribed under the sanctuary dome. It reads, “It has been told of thee, O Man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
For me, this final verse from Micah brings the story together. We are being commanded to create our own Jewish lives in a way that speaks to the demands of Jewish law, including our obligations to others.
Perhaps the sanctuary is telling us that, like those immigrant congregants new to California, we must make our own Judaism. It is up to us to interpret our tradition and the world around us, and to act accordingly.
What motivated the Jewish pioneers a century ago to build this space was not only a sense of awe at the world, but also a sense of awe at their task — and now it is ours.
George Altshuler lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]