I press my palm against the cold, blue iron door and enter the sanctuary. Gliding over the lush red carpet, I reach for my prayer book on the bookshelf. As I stride towards my usual seat in the fourth row, a cow wanders past me.
Such is reality when your only way to experience the inside of your home synagogue is by building it on Minecraft.
After four months of quarantine – of praying alone in a corner of the dining room that faces the alley behind my house – I needed to go someplace else. Of course, we can’t go someplace else. Praying in an indoor communal space with a minyan of other people is a no-no. In a religion that teaches us to “choose life,” we must also choose to be by ourselves or in small groups a lot until an effective vaccine is discovered. That doesn’t make the experience any easier.
But I missed everything about my Saturday mornings at Congregation Beth Shalom. The deep blues of the light as it refracts through the stained glass windows. The oddly pleasing aesthetic of the high-backed, seldom used chairs on the bimah. Everything about the space is calming and peaceful for me. So, living without that spiritual space since February has been lousy.
Minecraft, for the uninitiated, is a video game. Since it’s 2011 release, it has become the most popular video game of all time, having sold 200 million copies on over a dozen different digital platforms. The gameplay is pretty simple in that there isn’t really any one specific objective. You start in a forest with absolutely nothing, and through mining and crafting, you make items that allow you to build houses for defense from bad guys and weapons and such. The goal is to survive, and maybe find some cool stuff to build things with.
Ultimately, the gameplay of Minecraft allows the user to create nearly anything that can be imagined. Minecrafters have built re-creations of famous landmarks, whole cities, aircraft carriers. You can watch reenactments of famous battles or scenes from your favorite movies in Minecraft. The entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth from the “Lord of the Rings” series has been painstakingly built in Minecraft, to the very last detail.
My 9-year-old son has been playing Minecraft for a few years. With quarantine suddenly limiting the number of options for things to do, I thought I’d give the game a whirl. I was stunned by how much I enjoyed the building – the calm and methodical process of planning where to put a staircase or trying to make a facade look just right. I built houses, then graduated to castles and bridges. Then I built a village.
But of course, a good village needs a synagogue. And what better a model for a synagogue than Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. It took around 30 hours of mining, crafting, and building.
I’m satisfied with the finished product. I cut the actual building down to a smaller scale – I didn’t need all five floors, or a gym, or an early childhood center. My Minecraft Beth Shalom is just four rooms: the ballroom, the sanctuary, the coat room and the lobby. I took a few liberties in the building process – replacing the giant granite Spock hands of the Cohen over the Torah ark with two giant blue fires, removing the balcony, eliminating dozens of rooms that are useful in the real world, but less so digitally. I probably fell off the roof a dozen times during the building process. And in my quests across the Minecraft world to get the necessary items – crates full of sandstone for the building; Warped Nether Wood for the doors; soul torches; pink granite – I probably died 10 times.
It’s not quite an actual replacement for praying in the real thing, but it feels a little more comforting to know that I can flip on my PlayStation and “go” to Beth Shalom. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa once said, “You find God wherever you let God in.” And after a little bit of work, now I can find God with the help of Minecraft. PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is rabbi at Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. He lives in Pittsburgh.