Where are you? No matter how empty the room or how boring the town, take a minute to look around and think. Far from mere backdrops for the “real” drama of human activity, spaces—differentiated physical sites that are both inhabited and imagined by human beings—are key expressions of, and structures that give shape to, ideas, practices, and communities that we might call religious.
Sources as diverse as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the scholarship of Mircea Eliade encourage us to think about space in terms of dualities—the secular/public/profane versus the religious/private/sacred. But these ascriptions are not obvious or neutral.
In January 2016, I asked the same question of my students at the College of Charleston: Where are you? Fifteen of them sat tentatively around tables arranged in a large square. There was a whiteboard on one side, and a computer projection system on the other. All around the perimeter of the room were old Jewish books assembled haphazardly. Looking down from the wall was a middlebrow artistic print of a stern-looking rabbi.
We were in room 210 of the Jewish Studies Center, a public university classroom assigned to students in this first-year seminar. Most identified as Christian and came from small towns scattered across the state. I sat in front of the whiteboard; the arrangement encouraged discussion while maintaining a sense of hierarchy, disciplining us into our roles as teacher and students. It would surprise us, I noted, if someone started spontaneously dancing, or sauntered in off the street to join us, or started praying. College policies dictated who could enter the classroom during what times, and the establishment clause of the First Amendment would seem to necessitate its secularity.
And yet, the building had been erected in 2002 thanks to the generosity of local Jewish community members, who had been depositing unwanted Judaica and attending lectures and classes there ever since. Jewish students occasionally used the room, also known as the Levin Library, for religious services, and the campus Hillel office was across the hall. It was a space made possible by a long history of Jewish textualism and book collecting; by the development of American higher education since the seventeenth century; and by the upward social mobility and philanthropic practices of American Jews in the late twentieth century.
In the sixth week of the class we went on a fieldtrip to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (“Holy Community House of God”), the historic synagogue two blocks away. I asked yet again: Where are you? Outside in the courtyard, there was a set of impressive columns, which resembled the Catholic church across the street enough to have confused a few students on their way there. A Holocaust memorial walkway sat just within the wrought-iron gate that enclosed the complex. Inside the building, a small corridor with a set of interpretative panels led to a back room filled with historic artifacts and antique dioramas. As we entered the sanctuary, the first thing students noticed was not the nineteenth century pews or the imposing organ looking down from the balcony, but the yahrzeit plaques listing the names and dates of hundreds of deceased congregants. Tiny lightbulbs indicated whose death was being commemorated that week. We took in the stained-glass windows representing the twelve tribes of Israel and a double-tiered bima, or pulpit, facing east toward Jerusalem. Flags of the United States and Israel flanked an impressive wooden ark.
KKBE is the second oldest extant synagogue in the United States. The Greek Revival building was constructed in 1840, after a devastating fire destroyed the previous one. A congregant, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, quickly painted the original sanctuary from memory, showing the bima in the middle of the space, in the style of the Spanish and Portuguese diaspora, rather than at the front, in the style of Ashkenaz, or central Europe. As the new synagogue was built, the organ became a site of controversy, leading to a schism and a lawsuit, decided in 1846 by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The building, then, provides evidence of Jews’ celebration of democracy (both ancient and American), of the congregation’s shifting demography, and of its engagement with the courts.
The congregation dates to the 1740s and describes itself as “the birthplace of American Reform Judaism.” Congregants celebrate the historic character of the sanctuary and docent-led tours raise money to preserve it (expensive repairs to its ceiling are currently underway). And yet, the space itself also tells other histories. The flags and the memorial walkway point to the development of Zionist and post-Holocaust Jewish identities. The new additions—including a gift shop and a spacious social hall—are evidence of the expanded role of the synagogue in the twentieth century. The synagogue’s museum indicates cultures of remembrance and tourism much more recent than 1840. It is a synagogue, but it is also an event space, a tourist destination, and a commemorative site. It has also been cited to forward narratives of religious tolerance and inclusion within the city. And yet, if you visit on a Friday night, a police officer will be lingering on the steps outside, carefully watching as you enter, a response to recent massacres at Mother Emanuel AME Church, just a half mile away, and at Tree of Life Congregation, a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The Jewish studies classroom and the historic synagogue are both spaces used for learning, devotion, and community and often understood as simply “Jewish.” This fact points to the eccentric relationship of Judaism to the category of “religion,” understood in terms of belief and worship. For much of Jewish history, the study hall was arguably the most important space of Jewish piety, not the synagogue. When we understand the classroom as only secular and the synagogue as only sacred, then, we lose sight of the particularity and constructedness of those terms.
We also miss the range of communal, commercial, and political interests that shape spaces across the secular/sacred divide. A port city on the Atlantic Ocean, Charleston, South Carolina, once hosted the largest Jewish community and the most active slave trade in the United States. It is the site of the first hostilities of the Civil War, Travel & Leisure’s “Best City in America” several years running, and the self-described “Holy City” because of its many houses of worship. In 2015, in addition to the massacre at Mother Emanuel, it attracted attention for the shooting of Walter Scott by police in neighboring North Charleston and for a “thousand-year flood,” one sign of the low-lying city’s vulnerabilities to climate change. Whatever else forms them, the Jewish Studies Center and KKBE synagogue exist because Jews had the political and economic power to claim space in the city, in 1840, when it was ruled by a white minority and run on slave labor, and in 2002, when it continued to be shaped by histories of injustice.
All of this is to say that scholars and teachers of religion should make a habit of asking not only who, what, or when, but where. As Thomas Tweed argues, spaces are religiously “generated” and “generative.” Attending to these spatial histories and dynamics teaches us the messiness of religion and the complexity involved in labeling it, not only “over there,” in spaces of particular intensity or renown, but right here, wherever that may be.