Today marks a milestone in our congregation’s history. For the first time, with this lift, our bema is accessible to all who want to ascend it. From now on, anyone who is leading part of our service can literally make aliyah - they can come up and lead our prayers or bless the Torah in the same space as everyone else. The portability of the lift allows us to move it to the chapel, our only other non-accessible space. Stairs are no longer a barrier as they have been for millennia all the way back to the days of Solomon’s temple. And, God willing, by next Rosh Hashanah we will have a ramp from this level all the way up to the ark.
This lift both literally and figuratively shows us how many מדרגות - how many stairs have served as a barrier to people being able to fully participate in our worship. The מדרגות we remove with this lift are not the first barriers to be lowered to allow more people to fully participate in Jewish worship, nor will they be the last.
In the time of the patriarchs only the head of the family could build altars and offer sacrifices. Jacob built several. Isaac offered sacrifices at the altars Abraham built and Abraham - tomorrow morning we will read of him being willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice, his son on an altar he built. As was the custom at the time, those altars were built atop high places. In addition to the patriarch of the family being the sole practitioner of sacrifices, to worship one had to climb a hill. If the patriarch lived long enough he would have been unable to make the climb and the responsibility would pass to the head of the next generation or not be done at all.
As we left Egypt, traveled the Sinai, conquered Canaan and established our own kingdom, we developed a broader cadre of men who could lead worship, a clan in the tribe of Levi, the Cohanim - the priests. Whether we learned to create a priesthood from the Egyptians or the Midianites in the Sinai, or the people of Canaan, matters not. God designated, or we delegated to the Cohanim the right and the obligation to perform our sacrifices and rituals. Perhaps because of the Golden Calf where the Israelites panicked during Moses’ long absence and demanded a pagan ritual to keep them safe, or we simply emulated those around us, this system of the Cohanim, priests, broadened the numbers of those who could fully participate in the worship while still restricting it. And where did the Cohanim eventually perform these rituals? At the altar in the Temple which was built on a high place and elevated further by being placed on a platform. Torah specifically talks about the priests having to wear special clothing so as the climbed the מדרגות - stairs they would maintain their modesty as the Israelites below looked up at them.
With the destruction of the first Temple those exiled to Babylon had no Temple and thus no particular need for a priesthood. They established the synagogue as the place of prayer. Who led the service was not determined by familial right but rather only those men who proved themselves capable of creating this new form of worship led the prayers. Another stair came down.
Returning from Babylon the rebuilt Temple and the synagogue existed side by side. But while the Temple entrenched itself in the old priesthood, the synagogue expanded who could fully participate in worship. Now no special training was needed. The service coalesced and when the second Temple was destroyed, the synagogue survived. Openness survived and thrived. Even Maimonides himself hoped the priesthood would never be reestablished. Another stair is removed.
Through subsequent centuries the system remained the same until the Reform Movement decried separate seating. Our founders declared that women, men and children could all sit and pray together. Slowly, very slowly women began leading prayers in public. First candle lighting and then more. In 1922 Judith Kaplan was the first woman to celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah in a public service. Eighty one years ago Regina Jonas became the first woman we have a record of being ordained as a rabbi. In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in America and in 1975 Barbara Ostfeld became the first woman known to have been formally invested as a cantor. The barrier was broken and another stair fell away.
In the 1980’s the Reform Movement began ordaining lesbians and gay men as rabbis and cantors. Certainly gay men and lesbians had been ordained for centuries. But they had to remain closeted, hidden like Jews trying to avoid the Inquisition. Open ordination felled another barrier and more מדרגות were removed. A few years ago the first trans rabbi was ordained and another stair disappeared.
During these past few decades we chipped away the מדרגות that kept non-Jewish partners of Jews out of the synagogue and off the Bema. You men and women who bless us by your commitment to raise Jewish children now stand by your children as they enter religious school, celebrate becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and rejoice with them under the Chupah.
And now, in our synagogue another 3 מדרגות have literally been jackhammered out, and everyone can access our Bema, lead prayers and bless Torah where all can see.
Yes, this lift is not pretty. Yes, it is noisy. But for now that is good. Because every time it is used, we will see and hear it allowing someone who could not previously ascend to do so. This lift will remind us of how far we have come and challenge us to remove the מדרגות that still remain.
How appropriate it is that we dedicate this lift on Rosh Hashanah - our new year, our time of reflection. A time we look back to see how far we have come as people and Jews as well as how far we have yet to grow.