What the Temple Mount could learn from Dresden’s Holy Temple

I recently prayed in the basement of the iconic Frauenkirche in Dresden, where original chambers, spared from the 1945 firebombing, serve as sanctuaries and prayer/meditation rooms. Aside from the three-dimensional cross in the center, the basement hall hardly advertises any creed.

Dresden Frauenkirche basement

Father in heaven forgive me, but I sat in the room dedicated to the Ten Commandments – the closest to my tradition – and prayed: for the peace of Israel, the world, and the blessings we all wish for ourselves and loved ones. Surprisingly, it was as spiritually fulfilling as some of my prayer sessions at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

The “Church of the Lady” was built as a glorious Protestant church in defiance of August the Strong, the Saxon ruler who controversially converted to Catholicism in his quest to secure the Polish crown. He died in 1733, a year before the Frauenkirche’s inauguration, but Bach broke in the state-of-the-art organ. Call its destruction measure for measure; during Kristallnacht of 1938, the beautiful Dresden synagogue built in 1840 burned to the ground.

Orit in front of the Frauenkirche

A day after the Royal Air Force firebombing on Tuesday night, February 13, 1945, survivors walked cautiously through the destroyed Old Town to see what was left of their homes, their city, and of course, their “Holy Temple,” the Frauenkirche. Only on Thursday morning did the beautiful Baroque dome buckle; the church’s sandstone had expanded during the fire but shrank upon cooling, causing the supports to loosen.

Only one facade remained; call it, the “Kotel” of Dresden. (Bear in mind, this is an artistic analogy, not a claim of moral equivalence between Jewish Jerusalem and Nazi Germany.) People would visit Dresden’s “Kotel” while the ruins, under communist East Germany, turned into a “Denkmal,” a memorial to war. Roses grew out of the rubble.

Finally, in 1994, reconstruction of Dresden’s “Holy Temple” began with private funding, much from England, the country that had bombed Dresden’s Old Town to bits. Original stones were placed in their original setting, thanks to special architecture software (apparently developed by an Israeli). The Church would be a symbol of peace and reconciliation. The cross was designed by the son of an RAF bomber pilot and donated by Her Majesty.

The “Kotel” of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

Today, the Frauenkirche is a pilgrimage site. As a Dresden tour guide, I take people of all races and creeds through the door of this miraculous house of worship representing love triumphing over hate. Today, Dresden, the “Florence of the Elbe” is a free city. Signs barring Jews from its plaza – long gone. I wish I could say the same for Jerusalem.

At the Frauenkirche, I don’t have to undergo the restrictions that the Israeli government and Islamic Waqf place upon Jews as they enter the grounds of the Temple Mount during “Jewish opening hours.” I don’t have to walk through metal detectors. I don’t have to show my ID. Once inside, no one shoves (or sells) me a scarf to cover bare arms. No clergy preaches how I should or shouldn’t behave. No Israeli or Muslim police shadows me to make sure I, as a Jew, am not praying.

This might sound like a sacrilege to some, but Dresden’s “Holy Temple” could serve as a model for the Temple Mount and whatever Third Temple, as a symbol of peace, will stand there.

True to the vision of the prophets, it would be a place where people of all creeds and races could find inspiration and say their prayers. As a historically Jewish site, Judaism should be given priority representation, but other religions (and atheists) should feel welcome.

Even today, the Temple Mount has its own “basement,” the Temple “Tunnels,” operated by Israeli authorities, but one could visit them only through booking a guide. For starters, the “Tunnels” should be turned into private prayer/meditation spaces for the general public.

Today, intolerant and violent Islam dominates the Temple Mount such that the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque stand for Islamic supremacy and the type of mouth-frothing Jew-hatred that would make Hitler proud. For Israel to reach the level of peace that Dresden now enjoys, these domed symbols of hate may have to meet the same fate as the Frauenkirche in 1945, at the hands of those who love human freedom, human rights, and real justice and peace.

Orit at the Frauenkirche Tower overlooking the rebuilt city



Why Us?

I’m sure that most of you have heard about how three synagogues in my hometown of Sacramento were firebombed early Friday morning. And perhaps you have heard about the pain that so many Jews around the country are feeling. And, of course, these feelings run even deeper among those of us who are members of one of the temples.

I have belonged to Congregation B’nai Israel, one of the torched synagogues, for the past 17 years. Celebrating our 150th anniversary, we are the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi River.

All weekend, members of our temple (900 families strong) phoned each other, seeking news about how bad it really was, etc., since we were not allowed anywhere near the site.

We talked about how this could happen in America? What have we done? Why do they (still) hate us so much? Aren’t we good members of the community?

We volunteer for local services and donate funds to good civic causes. All we ask is to be allowed to worship the way we wish and to be allowed to keep our culture alive in our own homes and temples. We don’t seek converts. It is not a “we’re better than you are,” or “God loves us more than you.” All we ask is that we be allowed to live in peace, brotherhood and safety within the dominant Christian community. We don’t want to bother or threaten the dominant community. Just allow us “to be.” Is that so hard?

We heard via our phone tree, as well as the local media, that our weekly Friday Shabbat service would be held in the 2,000-seat Community Theatre.

Since I’m not religious and don’t often go to Friday-night services, I thought simply to pass. But then I thought that someone should be there to “stand up” to the terrorists. I figured that I would lend my presence to the 150 or 250 people who might show up; if nothing else, we would fill a few rows in the huge theater, which has two balconies.

Then I arrived.

Eighteen hundred people from all over our community — Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, Hare Krishna’s, and members from every sect of the Protestant community — were there. There were members from black churches, gay churches, Asian churches, as well as atheists, agnostics and some of the followers of New Age spiritual leaders. There were ministers, bishops, city council members, the police chief, the FBI, ATF, and representatives from the state legislature and governor’s office. Never have I seen such an outpouring of grief and concern from the community…for Jews.

Our Friday-night service is a “Celebration of the Sabbath,” when workday thoughts are put aside and the hearts of the parents turn toward the children, and the hearts of the children turn to the parents. We sing, clap hands, say prayers, listen to the rabbi and cantor banter with each other, and, of course, hear a sermon, often filled with humor. It is a happy service…and usually short.

But who could be happy? Our house of worship had been torched. Our entire library of 5,000 books was gone. Yet our rabbi told us that we must persevere and that to not celebrate the Sabbath would be exactly what the terrorists would hope to achieve. And so we went on with our service.

There were a number of speakers from our congregation and the community. All were inspirational and devoid of the kind of sorrow, sadness, grief or anger that you might expect.

Our previous rabbi, now retired, who served us for 22 years, flew in from Phoenix and reminded us that “we are the Jewish people and that we have always survived and we will survive this as well.” And we were putting on a brave front. We laughed, we sang, we applauded, we said the ancient prayers. We held up the best we could.

Then something I will never forget happened.

Seated on the stage (our stand-in bimah) were a number of our temple’s officers, as well as some of the “dignitaries” from the city. There was also an attractive blonde woman whom no one seemed to recognize. I heard the “buzz” around me: “Who is that woman, and why is she there?” Then our rabbi stepped forward and said he wanted to introduce us to the Rev. Faith Whitmore. The blonde rose and went to the podium. I’m not sure if she is the local or regional head of the United Methodist Church, but she spoke briefly at first about how appalled she and her brethren were over the arson bombings. She then reached into her suit coat and took out a piece of paper.

“I want you to know that this afternoon we took a special offering of our members to help you rebuild your temple, and we want you to have this check for $6,000,” she told us. For two seconds, there was absolute dead quiet. We were astounded. Slowly, then building, the hall shook with applause. I’ve never heard applause like that before. It went on for two minutes. And then people broke into tears. Me, included.

As the Rev. Whitmore gave the check to the rabbi and hugged him, it was one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever been witness to. Our congregation, some 1,100 of us, stood with tears in our eyes. The evening closed with a final hymn, and we all went home feeling a bit better.

The other reality did not hit me until the following afternoon, when I saw the charred remains of the library wing. The place was swarming with ATF, FBI and other agents, who were collecting materials for the investigations. One ATF agent said that this is being classified as an “act of domestic terrorism” and has been given the highest priority. When you see the destruction of something that was “yours,” something you helped build, and something you were proud of, it hits you. The depression is overwhelming.

Why here? Why us? Why me? I’m sure there are answers, but I don’t have them at the moment. The only answer I do have is that we must pick ourselves up as a congregation and community and move on. They can’t beat us. We are the Jewish people. We were here 5,000 years ago, and we will be here 5,000 years from today.

I’m going to end by doing something that may upset some of you. I’m going to call in whatever markers I might have. We lost our entire 5,000-volume library. I saw it. It was soot. Not even a page remained. Nothing.

It was a wonderful library of Jewish-oriented books and films. It was a treasure of our congregation, and it was used by hundreds of our members, especially the young people. In our community, mothers took their children to the temple library as much as they took their children to the public library. It was part of “what we do.” Our books and videos were one of the ways we “socialized” our young people into our culture. And it works. We expect a lot from them, and we make sure that they have the tools and opportunities not to disappoint us.

If you could find it in your heart to send a check for a dollar or two ($5, $10, or whatever is in your heart) for our library fund, it would be a mitzvah. I told our rabbi that I would ask every publisher in America for a small contribution.

If this is something you could do, please make out a check to Congregation B’nai Israel and send it to Alan N. Canton at Adams-Blake Publishing, 8041 Sierra St., Fair Oaks, CA 95628. I will see that it gets to the right people.