Sermon: Parashat Terumah – Building our own Disneyland

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 5 March 2020

The seeds of Disneyland were first planted in Walt Disney’s head on a visit to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. As he watched his two daughters, Diane and Sharon, on the merry-go-round, Disney thought how wonderful it would be to build a park where both parent and child could have fun together. The dream was born, one of different fantasy lands, where guests were given the opportunity to escape from the realities of everyday life.


The plan remained dormant for a while, but became a reality when the park opened in July of 1955. Within the first six months of opening over one million visitors had entered the park. During the first year, that figure rose to four million.


Why was the park so successful? Disney built his amusement park with a purpose at its heart, thinking of the need he identified in the market. Most of the amusement parks already in existence were limited to a few rollercoasters, hot dog vendors and a plentiful flow of beer. They were dirty and deteriorated and not aimed at the whole family.  Walt Disney created the opposite of this, a unique concept: a place to keep the family together by creating an atmosphere that catered to the entire family. Disney said, ‘You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.’


The success of Disneyland did not put an end to Walt Disney’s dreams. Rather it fuelled him to continue to talk to the public and identify their changing needs. Market research revealed that only 5% of Disneyland’s visitors came from east of the Mississippi river, where over 75% of the population of the USA lived.

So, in 1959 Walt Disney began looking for land to house a second resort on the east coast to supplement Disneyland in California and meet the needs of the majority of Americans.


Disney knew that the new park needed to be somewhere accessible, at the junction of major highways. He also knew that people wanted to be able to come when it suited them, therefore the park needed to open its doors all year round, and could not be located at the mercy of frigid winters.


Disneyland and Disneyworld were built for the people, with their needs in mind. By creating these magical places, Disney changed the relationship between the people and the Disney name. They felt the Disney magic come to life as they were able to interact with their favourite characters. The public became active participants in their own Disney movie.


Whilst the concept of synagogue is vastly different in both scale and purpose to that of Disney, our places of worship are created in a similar way, with the needs of the people at the centre. They also have a similar purpose; to bring people together and to act as channels through which people can change the relationship they have with their Judaism.


There are few requirements in classical sources about what our sanctuaries need to be holy places. Rabbi Ezekial Landau of Prague became somewhat of an authority on the architectural form of a synagogue. Writing  in the Orach Hayyim he states that there is no reason to forbid innovations in a synagogue building, even if they feel untraditional, as long as the motivation is right.

If a building is innovated to reflect wealth or to copy the local palaces then it would not be right to innovate. However, if a synagogue needs more room to meet the needs of the community, then it should be rebuilt for these purposes.


The idea of creating a place to meet our needs is biblical, we see it in the step by step guide as to how the mishkan should be built. And it wasn’t just the finished product that met the needs of the people, but the act of building itself that was crafted to serve the needs of the Israelites.


German theologian and philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, identified that building the mishkan is the first act of building that the Israelites embark on since leaving slavery. Earlier in the book of Exodus the Israelites were forced to build for Pharaoh, now they were building for God. The act of building in itself demonstrated they were free and brought the community together in an act of holy work with a sacred purpose.


The act of building the mishkan also helped to transform the relationship the Israelites had with God. Formerly in their relationship with God they were passive participants, receiving gifts and waiting to be saved. In their work to build the mishkan they became active partners in the building of their Judaism. God did not need a sanctuary, God was with the Israelites through their exodus, the splitting of the sea and their journeying thus far, regardless of having a place to dwell.


But the building of a sanctuary for God to dwell in, changed the dynamic of their relationship with God. The Israelites began working in partnership with the divine to bring sanctity into the world.


And now it is our turn to build with purpose, to create a sanctuary that meets our needs and to allow our relationship with Judaism, our building and God change in the process.


Our building was last refurbished over 18 years ago when our community was very different. Our building is no longer fit for its sacred purpose. It does not comfortably and safely meet the ever increasing and diverse needs of our 3,500 members.


We need a space that is fully accessible, so that everyone can go to anything they wish to participate in, regardless of where in our building it is located. We need multiple prayer spaces that feel beautiful, so that our varying services can feel like they too are in a holy sanctuary. We need spaces that are structurally safe to hold the people that are in them.


The obligation lies with us to create a space that feels holy, that expresses our values and in which God can dwell amongst us. We are given the chance to become active partners in our building at the Special  Meeting of Congregants on Monday evening, where we require you, our community to be present in person to vote.


It is an exciting time for us as a community, a time where we can be part of the conversation that helps to build our tabernacle. It is our moment work together in holy work, to change our relationship with this building, to act in partnership to create a sacred space.


We need to work together to create our Disneyland, a building that is open, accessible and that works for the entire family, whatever your chosen style of prayer. We need to be active partners in its creation, so that we can feel part of its sacred purpose. We need to create a space that meets our needs and the needs of future generations, so that our community can continue to grow and thrive.


Ultimately, we need you to help turn our dreams into a reality.

For in the words of Walt Disney, ‘We do not build this for ourselves, we build it for them.’