July 31, 2015
The Tabernacle at the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, built 1879.
We took a ferry to Martha's Vineyard not knowing what exactly we wanted to see. Our friends with whom we were vacationing offered to watch our kid for the day, which meant we had the option of exploring as grownups -- walking as much as our feet would bear, snapping photographs of things we found interesting, stopping to read on park benches -- the way we used to do before our son was born. Our feet led us to the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, also known as Wesleyan Grove.
Back in the 1800s, there was a trend of summer religious camp meetings. People would come and set up temporary housing -- canvas tents, sometimes with wooden floors, sometimes with floors of earth and straw -- and several times a day, preachers would give over the gospel and the community would pray. Martha's Vineyard was home to the first religious camp meeting site in the United States. A group of Methodists set up camp here in what they described as a venerable oak grove.
As the camp became established, a few things began to shift. The central preaching area became covered by a big canvas tent, and then by a giant wrought-iron open-air worship space called the Tabernacle -- still used today.
Those who came to camp for the summers stayed initially in small canvas tents with wooden floors and ornately scalloped canvas rooflines. When canvas became scarce, because of the American Civil War, families began erecting small wooden cottages instead -- with similar scalloped roofs.
Some say the cottages are meant to be reminiscent of the old canvas tents. Others say their designs are meant to evoke churches. They have double front doors which open like church doors, framed by the kind of windows one often sees in churches too.
In the one cottage which is open as a museum, we saw a framed yellowing printed sheet bearing the original campground rules. Those rules indicated, among other things, that a light was to be kept burning in each tent (or house) all night, not to be allowed to go out.
I don't know why that rule was established. Maybe, as the cottage museum guide speculated, it was to prevent hanky-panky in what was then a very conservative religious campground. (We also learned that when a secular summer resort was established nearby, the religious leaders built a 7-foot wall to keep bad influences out!) But reading it, I couldn't help thinking of the repeated exhortation in Leviticus that "a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (See my Torah poem for parashat Tzav.)
I suspect my mind went immediately to the נר תמיד / ner tamid, the eternal light which burned in the Tabernacle (and which now burns in every synagogue) because these cottages are juxtaposed with a "Tabernacle" -- an English translation of our Hebrew משכן / mishkan, the portable tabernacle which our spiritual ancestors built so that the Presence of God could dwell within it -- or within them. (The Hebrew in Exodus 25:8 is ambiguous: "Let them build Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within...")
Sitting in the wrought-iron Tabernacle, all I could think was: wow, it would be fun to lead a Jewish Renewal Shabbat service here with my hevre! I still remember my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat evening services, in the tent at the edge of the meadow at the old Elat Chayyim. There was a kind of tent-revival feel, and not only because we were literally davening in an open-sided white canvas tent. I'd like to daven in the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Tabernacle someday.