Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Balak: Turning a tent into a Mishkan

From the air, Denver International Airport looked like a city of white tents erected on a desert plain, its billowing white roofs meant to evoke the snow-capped Colorado Rockies and the historic dwellings of the region’s Native Americans.

For me, the resonance was different.

As my plane descended, on that trip three years ago, my head filled with the well-known Hebrew words from this week’s Torah portion: “Ma tovu ohalecha Yacov, mishkanotecha Yisrael” (How good are your tents, Jacob, your holy dwelling places, Israel!) (Numbers 24: 5).”

These are the words of the sorcerer Balaam. Balak, king of Moab, where the newly freed Hebrews had temporarily settled, had hired Balaam to curse their encampment. But as Balaam looked down from the mountaintop and began to pronounce the curse, out came these words of blessing.

Both his intention to curse and his words are transformed.  His phrase begins with mundane tents and Jacob’s secular name. Yet, by the line’s end, “Jacob” becomes “Yisrael” and the “ohelim” (tents) become “mishkanot” (holy places for God to dwell). Both words, “mishkan” and “Yisrael,” contain names for God, “Shekhinah” and “El” respectively. Both Jacob and his tent become suffused with holiness. 

As I looked out the airplane window, I chanted the phrase to myself. It described my trip’s mission, a pilgrimage to turn my own tent into a mishkan.

My pilgrimage was not to a place but to a community that had grown around a profound teacher, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who had died a month earlier, on July 3, 2014. It was one of many trips I have made over the past four decades — not only to Colorado but to Berkeley, Philadelphia, the Catskills and elsewhere — in search of making this transformation from a body in the secular world to a vessel in which God can dwell.

Reb Zalman said he began each day with the exclamation: “Here we are again, God! What kind of ride can I give you today?” It is this sense that we are vessels for bringing holiness into the world that has made Jewish practice so precious to me.

Reb Zalman was a temporal Colossus of Rhodes, standing with one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st, despite having witnessed the atrocities of the 20th century. Narrowly escaping Vichy France as a young man, he came to the United States in 1941. Ordained and fully rooted in Orthodox Judaism, his life kept teaching him. He interacted with mystics of other religions and the countercultural world of the 1960s and ’70s.

He evolved, creatively blending Jewish mysticism, progressive environmental and feminist politics, and the shared spiritual wisdom transcending religious boundaries; enabling him to give his followers an alternative to the post-Holocaust Judaism that looked outward as it reconstituted itself after Hitler’s attempt to banish us from the material world. 

The Judaism of my youth was Judaism of the ohel/tent. Our people’s losses were so monumental that our bereft leaders could do little but attempt to reestablish footholds in the material world. They built Israel and they built buildings, as if to say to the world (and to themselves), “Am Yisrael Chai! (The people of Israel live!) 

In the 1950s, as I sat on hard chairs in the un-air-conditioned classrooms of New Orleans’ Touro Synagogue, my teachers rarely attempted to transmit a connection with God. How could they? So many survivors, whether they had actually suffered the Shoah, had lost their faith. How could God have abandoned God’s people?

Much of this God-wrestling was unconscious. So soon after World War II there was as yet no language for the theological metamorphosis that followed the Holocaust. The teachers before us had not found words for what was rumbling in their shocked and tormented psyches. They foisted upon us a rote Judaism, whose essence we could not understand.
God bless them, and may they rest in peace. They were stunned and grieving — wrestling with God.

Reb Zalman, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, provided an alternative to this exoteric Judaism, making Jewish esoteric teachings available to those locked out of the gates of Jewish wisdom by assimilation and gender. Diving deeply into Judaism as a spiritual path, he taught us to be Jews who danced with God and prayed with our feet as we marched for social justice, as well as Jews who sat in silence and felt the movements of holiness within.

“Each of us has been deployed, our call imprinted at birth,” Reb Zalman said. “We are arrows shot from a Holy Quiver as our souls take bodies when we exit our mothers’ wombs. Each of us is different, yet we are all in the image of God, each with a unique purpose.”

Our task, he taught, was to continually refine our souls so that we could remain aligned with that purpose, in order to manifest our distinct face of God.

In memory of my beloved teacher, I strive daily to turn my tent into a mishkan. 

Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director, is a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

14 haiku for Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei (involving a major construction project) by Rick Lupert


An all staff meeting.
Building instructions given.
Not on Saturday.

This tabernacle
funded by all the people.
The first Kickstarter.

A miracle! This
over-funded project is
with the artists now.

Here in the dream lab
curtains are connected and
loops of wool appear.

Planks and sockets and
cubits. This is what it takes
to build a Mishkan.

The holiness is
in the details. A golden
Menorah appears.

Who doesn’t love to
see a project completed.
Now, the inspectors.


Let’s name all our kids
Bezalel, so that they may
become artists too.

Priests looking for the
latest accessories – look
no further: ephod.

Pomegranates and
bells. Twisted blue. This runway
will be off the hook.

Laying out the wares
Moses gives them a blessing
for a job well done.

With all the pieces
the Mishkan is almost here.
Assembly required.

Like a complex set
of Ikea instructions
Moses builds it all.

A cloud comes. Not one
of gloom and rain. This is the
cloud that strengthens us.

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Thriving indie Jewish communities join forces to create rabbinic fellowship

In the summer of 2011, Lizzi Heydemann returned to her native Chicago to establish a Jewish community loosely modeled on Ikar, the Los Angeles congregation where she had spent two years as a rabbinic intern.

She set about harvesting email addresses and putting out the word on social media. Heydemann called her community Mishkan – the Hebrew word for the mobile sanctuary built by the ancient Israelites from communal donations.

Heydemann’s first Shabbat service, held in someone’s living room, drew 65 people. The numbers snowballed from there – 90, 120, 150 for the monthly service. Mishkan’s first High Holiday service, in 2012, drew 600 people. The following year, it was 900 – among them Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his daughters. Last year, the service had 1,400 worshippers, comparable to what many large and established synagogues draw on the High Holidays.

“Synagogues just haven’t been doing it for the vast majority of Jews in America,” Heydemann said. “And that means there are a lot of really thirsty people out there.”

At a time of communal hand-wringing over declining rates of Jewish identification and synagogue membership — evident most recently in the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews — a handful of independent rabbis like Heydemann have demonstrated a consistent knack for drawing large numbers of mostly younger and mostly unaffiliated Jews to religious services.

Now seven of those rabbis are joining together in an effort to share their methods of connecting with this elusive cohort, which the institutional Jewish community has spent millions trying to reach.

The Jewish Emergent Network — a new partnership of communities widely hailed for their innovative spirit and proven success in attracting the young and unaffiliated — announced last month that it was establishing a fellowship for early-career rabbis. Modeled on the fellowship Heydemann did at Ikar, the program will place the seven rabbis in each of the participating communities for two years, during which they will receive mentorship and other training. Funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation and the Crown family of Chicago, the fellowship will begin in June.

The participating communities — in addition to Ikar and Mishkan, the group includes Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York, The Kitchen in San Francisco, Kavana in Seattle and Sixth & I in Washington, D.C. — are among the most successful young congregations in the United States.

They are led by rabbis routinely named to various annual lists of the most influential Jews and top American rabbis. Two of the seven showed up on the website Jewrotica’s lists of the sexiest rabbis. They use buzzwords like “high-content Judaism” and “DIY Judaism.” They have “spiritual directors” instead of rabbis and “live entertainment managers” in place of cantors. Their services tend to be lively and musically oriented, and they are explicitly committed to welcoming all comers, regardless of level of religious practice or sexual orientation — or even whether the participants are Jewish.

And even though none of these communities are affiliated with the major denominations and most don’t have a regular space, let alone their own building, they are consistently able to draw hundreds to weekly Shabbat services and thousands on the High Holidays. The vast majority of attendees are under 40 and unaffiliated with traditional synagogues.

“People in the network are simply doing R&D in the trenches,” said Amichai Lau-Lavie, the director of Lab/Shul, a 3-year-old “everybody-friendly” and “God-optional” community that drew more than 2,000 people to High Holiday services last year. “I think by the nature of things, the seminaries will catch up. The seminaries will always be behind people in the trenches.”

Though the individual communities differ somewhat in their particulars, they share a conviction that declining synagogue affiliation rates are not evidence that Jews have lost interest in Judaism. Rather, members suggest that traditional synagogues are largely unable to speak to the Jewish masses — either because they are too rigid and dogmatic, or because they have watered things down to the point where Judaism fails to inspire.

“The secret sauce is some kind of combination of being radically accessible and welcoming on the one hand, and raising the bar on engagement [on the other],” said Ikar leader Sharon Brous, who was named America’s top rabbi in 2013 by The Daily Beast.

“At Ikar we strive for an environment that really welcomes and embraces everyone – including folks who are ambivalent, atheist or just cynical about community, ritual, even God,” Brous said. “And at the same time, we don’t lower the bar for them. If we did, they’d walk in and run out.”

Whatever it is, the approach appears to be working. Noa Kushner, the fourth-generation Reform rabbi who leads The Kitchen, drew 1,000 people to High Holiday services last year in the most secular major metropolitan area of the country. A self-described “religious start-up,” The Kitchen is experimenting with a range of Silicon Valley-esque products, from a Pause app to create space daily for awe and gratitude to a deck of Passover cards to help newbies run their first seder.

“We don’t check pedigrees at the door,” Kushner said. “We have radical access. Anyone can stand up and say Kaddish. If you want to roll up your sleeves and do Jewish, we want you there.”

The Jewish Emergent Network came about through informal discussions among the communities over the past two years. So far it has raised $4 million toward a projected budget of $6 million that would fund two fellowship cohorts over four years.

Participants hope the fellowship will help spread their methods and thinking to other communities and, more broadly, that the network will help strengthen communities doing similar work. Beyond the fellowship, they are unsure where their partnership will lead, but they are certain where it won’t: For a group whose independence from the constraints of denominational affiliation has been their calling card, they are careful not to become what they have rebelled against.

“Some people have suggested, you’re building a movement. And I say, God forbid,” Brous said. “I have no interest in creating new institutional spaces with national conferences that people will roll their eyes at going to.

“My interest is in supporting each other, lifting the American Jewish community out of the demographic free fall and inspiring creative work.”

Building Our Mishkan: Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

The ancient sages teach us that the Torah is exceedingly careful with language. No phrase is superfluous. Each word or letter is part of the intricate unfolding mysteries concentrated in the Torah.

In Parshat Terumah, a few chapters ago, we read about the entire construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which the Jewish people used as a sanctuary during their journey from Egypt. So it comes as a major surprise in this week’s double parasha of Vayakhel-Pekudei that the Torah repeats the elaborate construction of the Mishkan. If the Torah is so particular with words, how is it possible that we repeat everything again just a few chapters later? Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Hakohen Pam, the great 20th century sage, asked this question and offers a beautiful insight into human nature.

The first time that the God lays out the intricate plans for the Mishkan the Hebrew reads, “And you shall make.” In the second recounting of the construction of the Mishkan, in our parasha, the Torah says, “And he made.”

Each Rosh Hashanah, every New Year, during times of great inspiration and creativity, or periods of searching and isolation, we dream up plans. In our minds we can see how this will all work out. We are going to change our lives for the better in myriad ways. We are going to launch a new and prosperous venture. We are determined to learn, to do, or explore. But so often these dreams and grand plans never come to fruition.

What is one of the common reasons that these plans don’t come about? It is not that we are too unrealistic, or that our ideas lack merit. Rather, all too often it is because we were unable to follow through with these plans. Grand plans happen one step at a time, but it is often difficult — each step may be a hurdle to overcome.

The intricate vision of the Mishkan in Parasha Terumah inspired the Jewish people to build it. The solid metal footings of the beams formed the base of the exterior walls. Fine gold handiwork fashioned the menorah. The intricate woven patterns on the tapestries and the clothes worn by the High Priest during the service were made to exacting standards. The entire vision took many hands, many hours and likely many mishaps along the way.

The recounting of the Mishkan here in Parasha Vayakhel-Pekudei, reminds us that to get from point A to point Z there are many stops in between. It is important that we make great plans, and to follow through with these plans requires us to take small steps at times and involve many people.

When making plans that involve the future of Jewish community, we cannot hope for a quick fix, but rather addressing all needs of a disappearing generation of young people will require a concentrated effort of many hands, many hours and a vision of what can be achieved. It will require the construction of a contemporary Mishkan that binds young Jewish people together and to the Jewish future.

Yonah Bookstein is the executive rabbi of JConnect and founded Jewlicious Festivals ( in 2005 as a gathering place for young Jews of Southern California. Jewlicious Festival 9 takes place this weekend at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Rabbi Bookstein is also the author of “Prayers for Israel” and conducts seminars internationally about solving the problems affecting young Jewish adults.

The Path for Growth

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I was interviewing at Adat Ari El for the position of assistant rabbi. The parsha on which I had to speak was Terumah. I wondered if there was any chance I would get the job.

Let me explain.

Some Torah portions lend themselves very easily to sermons. Yitro, which contains the giving of the Ten Commandments has lots of material about which to talk. Others are more challenging, like Tazria-Metzorah, which has extensive discussions about skin diseases, inflammations and rashes.

Terumah focuses on the details of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were to carry with them through their wilderness sojourn. So we read about the height, width and length of the various items in the Mishkan, like the ark, the menorah, the altars and with what and how these things were to be decorated and covered — a dream for an interior decorator but a nightmare for a fifth-year rabbinical student looking for a job.

However, details communicate to us. They convey messages about our priorities, values and beliefs. Similarly, the details surrounding the Mishkan — whether something was covered in gold or bronze, where it was located and how was it made — contain their own lessons and meanings.

We see an instance of this in the rabbinic commentary on the wood used to build the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, we read: “You shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright” (Exodus 26:15).

The rabbis ask the following question: Why does the Torah insist on acacia wood? What is so special about it over and against other wood? Their answer is at once succinct and profound: Because it is not wood from a fruit-bearing tree.

What does this mean? Just as the Mishkan cannot be built by destroying that which gives food and sustenance and provides for the future, so, too, we cannot build our religion on beliefs, practices and attitudes that are destructive to those around us at the same time. God is the source and creator of all life, and it is God that permeates and infuses the entire world around us. Therefore, it is illogical to build a house dedicated to God that destroys that which God has made at the same time.

And what is true for God’s house is also true for us as individuals, for what are we if not portable tabernacles for God’s presence?

When we are little, we learn that what goes up must come down. It is the most basic rule of gravity and the first one we learn as children. But as we grow older, we learn a new twist on this basic law: I can build myself up by putting others down.

However, if we truly want to live life to the fullest and embrace it to the greatest extent possible, we need to find the inner resolve and sense of self-worth to feel good about who we are in a manner that does not put down others.

Hence, be it as religious tradition or an individual, the Torah teaches through a seemingly minor detail a crucial lesson: If we wish to find holiness comparable to the Mishkan and draw closer to God, it can only be done when we create in a way that does not also destroy at the same time. Our own growth can only be sanctified when it does not come at the expense of others.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. He can be reached at


This is what happens in this week’s parsha. In Parshat Pekuday,
Moses gives the Israelites an accounting of how much gold, silver and copper
was contributed to build the mishkan (the Tabernacle that held the Ten
Commandments). This helps the Israelites to truly own the mishkan — it is their
own creation that they can now offer to God. Moses knew that doing the math
helped the Israelites feel good about their generosity.

March 8 is International Women’s Day!

The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United
States in 1909. It became International Women’s Day in 1911, when European
women joined the movement to promote and protect the equal rights of women.
Only a few days later, the famous and tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire
occurred in New York. More than 140 working girls, mostly Italian and Jewish
immigrants, were killed. This spurred women around the world to join the
movement to improve women’s working conditions, salaries and participation in
politics. Women have come a long way since those days.

A Portion of Parshat Vayakel-Pekuday

Bezalel helps the Israelites build the mishkan (tabernacle). They are returning a favor that God did for them many years earlier. God built the world so that humans would have a place to live. Now the Israelites are building a mishkan so that God will have a place to “live” on earth. The word mishkan comes from the Hebrew word shachen (neighbor). God and the Israelites are like good neighbors. Have you ever moved to a new neighborhood?

I hope that your new neighbors came to greet you, maybe bringing an apple pie, cookies or a toy. Now it is your turn — if a new neighbor moves in, or if a new kid comes to your school, you can also be a good neighbor. Greet them and make them welcome in your home. And one more thing: Bezalel (whose name means “in the shadow of God”) was chosen as master designer because he knew his stuff. So when you give your new neighbor a present, think first of what you are really good at: Baking? Building bird houses? Use your talents to make your present.

An Attitude Problem

The personals sections in an Israeli newspaper contained the following ad:

“Jewish man seeks partner who will attend shul with him, light Shabbat candles, celebrate holidays, build sukkah together, and go with him to brit milah and bar mitzvah celebrations. Religion not important.”

The absurdity, of course, makes us laugh, but the humorous story actually emphasizes an important message contained in this week’s portion. The Torah underscores that not only is religion itself important, but our attitudes about it are crucial.

The Torah records how all the materials were obtained for building the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Included in this listing:

“The Princes brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set for the ephod, and for the breastplate” (Exodus 35.-27).

The classic medieval Jewish commentary on the Torah, Rashi, asks why the spelling of the Hebrew word for Princes in this verse is defective, missing the two Yuds. Although it is true that the regular plural form of the Hebrew word for Princes appears in a variety of spellings, some omitting the first Yud while others omitting the second, never are both Yuds deleted.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments that this occurs here as a type of chastisement from God for these leaders did the following:

“But the Princes had said: Let the public contribute whatever they contribute, and what they leave wanting we will complete. Since the public completed everything that was needed, as it says, ‘And the work was sufficient for them’ the Princes said, ‘What is there left for us to do?’ Therefore as the verse states, ‘They brought the onyx stones etc…’, which were the only items not yet contributed. And because they lagged at the outset of the construction, a letter was deleted from their name.”

What a powerful lesson this Midrash teaches. The Princes wanted to donate an impressive gift to the Tabernacle. They only made one mistake. They weren’t at the front lines when the call went forth for help. They acted like men who, when a need has to be met, respond, “I will wait and see what others do.” This itself deserved reproach, and God subtly made His feelings known through the defective spelling.

Later, the Midrash informs us, the Princes learned their lesson. When it came time to inaugurate the altar, as recorded in Numbers (7:1-2), they were the first to contribute, not wanting to repeat their error a second time.

However, in this week’s Torah portion, the Princes showed by their actions that they lacked heart and spirit, and they were devoid of leadership. Not only did they have the wrong attitude, they did not realize the difference that attitude makes in Judaism. The Torah tells us that all of the other Jews responded quickly, and were therefore called “wise hearted.” God appreciated the modest but timely gifts of ordinary men and women more than He appreciated the precious stones of the Princes, which were given too late. In other words, attitude isn’t something; it is everything.

Elazer Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.