Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman is not happy with the orderly rows of chairs facing her before her session starts.
Instead, she suggests her audience come up with a better arrangement.
“Tune into yourselves,” she counsels.
“You do know that we are in England,” one of the participants remarks. “We like to follow orders.”
But after a minute or two, they move their chairs into a crescent around the visiting lecturer.
“It feels more like a place where human beings can be together in a way that supports what we want to happen in this room,” she says approvingly.
Rabbi Stern-Kaufman is more attuned to the atmospherics than most. Before entering the rabbinate, she was a practitioner of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of using space and design to enhance harmony and well-being.
Now she leads Rimon, a Jewish community in Berkshire, Massachusetts, one of a number of new spiritual ventures in the United States led by women.
She continues with her un-English start, inviting people to join her in singing an Appalachian folk song, “O Lord, prepare me/To be a sanctuary”, to set the mood.
The sacred use of space is the theme of her session and sanctuary is a key word. She believes that the layout of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle constructed by the Israelites in the wilderness according to the Torah, follows principles of feng shui and by understanding that, we can make our own places of worship more conducive to spiritual experience.
Many synagogues, however, are too big and too grand for the communities that use them, with their seats lined up behind an elevated bimah. The interior reflects a hierarchical relationship between the leader and the community and since they face the front, it does not allow members of the community to see one another.
“Those kinds of spiritual values are falling away,” she says. “They are not necessarily what is guiding our spiritual lives today.”
By better using lighting, colours, material, even aids like essential oil dispenser, synagogues can create more intimate settings.
“Space can lend itself to enhancing experience of God and connecting with one another,” she says.