Part II: More Lessons from Beth Am and Reflections on the Sacred Spaces in My Life
It wasn’t until I got home and read the program for the Rosh Hashana—Yom Kippur services at Beth Am that I realized the concept of “Sacred Space” is the theme of the coming year for Beth Am, both physically (as the Synagogue prepares to expand its building) and spiritually. Ostensibly, my presence at the afternoon services was in support of its community outreach organization IFO (In, For, and Of the Neighborhood, Inc.); two of our Board members, who live in and own a business in Reservoir Hill, were presenting a talk on Sacred Space in the community. These were not just any resident-business owners; our speakers were the owners of the Dovecote Café, a new eatery that has already become a vibrant hub for African-American entrepeneurs, artists, writers, and musicians, as well as “ordinary” folks just looking for a cool place to meet, eat, and talk.
B. Cole and Aisha Pew took the congregation on their inspiring and emotional personal journey from the West coast to Baltimore, with the intention of creating their café as a sacred space for an African-American community, after seeing the effects “gentrification” had on their community out West. (This trend of gentrification is also occurring elsewhere around the country—including Baltimore and New York [http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-12/get-out].) They intentionally chose Baltimore, after exploring a number of other cities, as the place in which their dream might thrive. And, indeed, it is thriving. Not just with the support of the larger Reservoir Hill community, but also support from Beth Am members who, if they haven’t already visited the café, expressed interest in doing so.
Both Aisha and Cole (as she is known) defined sacred space as a place that is open and welcoming to people, a place in which people feel safe enough—at home enough—to be themselves. But they also noted that creating the space was not enough; as owners, they felt a responsibility to be open and welcoming to their patrons and neighbors.
With its beautiful décor, home-style seating and food, and space for people to either engage in conversation or work on their own, at their laptops, phones, reading materials, or whatever, and with the delectable food (especially baked goods, which were rated Best in Baltimore by Baltimore Magazine this year), Dovecote is fulfilling the dreams, the intentions, and the goals its owners envisioned.
This same definition of a sacred space applies to my feelings about Beth Am, which translates to House of the People. The warmth and friendliness that congregation members have shown toward me feels genuine and true. When I visit the Synagogue now, there are faces I recognize and people I feel drawn to talk with. Like their logo says, it “Feels Like Home.” As at Dovecote, there are always people coming in and going out, greeting each other with a hug or quick word; and the space is filled with loving families and friends. There is a flowing, living energy at Beth Am, not just among the congregation, but between the congregation and the Rabbi.
So, what is a sacred space? Among the definitions/synonyms of “sacred” I culled from the Merriam Webster Crossword Dictionary and my trusty old World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary (combined into one group, here) are the following: holy, godly, religious, divine, consecrated, sacramental; set apart for or dedicated to some person, object, or purpose; inviolate or inviolable—i.e., immune from violence or interference, because to violate or disregard the sanctity of that sacred thing would be the destruction or betrayal of that ideal.
What strikes me about these definitions, as well as the definitions given by Aisha and Cole, is that a sacred space is not something that just happens. It requires intention or purpose; it requires a conscious agreement and/or act to establish and maintain its value. It does not exist in a vacuum; it is a communal idea, belief, or cause that is shared between people, that is built upon by people, and that expresses something both essential to and greater than the individuals involved.
Because of the environment, experience, history, and traditions shared therein, a house of worship is certainly sacred to those who are believers, and a person’s home and family and neighborhood are sacred to those who share its “space.” For those of us who thrive on the written word, a library is sacred because it houses the books from which we learn and enrich our minds and our imaginations. Nature is a sacred space for those of us who respect its beauty and power and understand how integral our care and attention to nature is to our own survival and to the survival of the very world we live. These are all some of my sacred spaces.
What are yours?
In the final segment of Sacred Spaces, I will discuss the difficulties of maintaining a sacred space, and talk about what it feels like to lose it.