We Are the People in Your Neighborhood: What A Synagogue Really Is

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time talking about my synagogue with other rabbis and laypeople. It is a natural thing for professionals and lay leaders to share “war stories” about the institutions that play such important roles in their lives, and often times, the insights gained are invaluable. Usually there are more than a few laughs that accompany this sharing, as we inevitably discover how universal certain synagogue characteristics are, both for better and for less good.

But side by side with these “clinical” conversations, there are countless– literally countless– conversations between synagogue Jews of all denominations about “their shuls.” These casual chats are anything but clinical. Sometimes they tell how wonderful a particular shul is, sometimes quite the opposite, sometimes they speak of a specific program, other times of religious services. A lot of times they talk about their clergy. But one thing that they all share in common is that they tend to speak of the synagogue as a single entity, almost personifying it and giving it particular qualities, characteristics or ideas.

Some examples… “My shul is having a blood drive this weekend.” Or, “My shul is thinking of remodeling its sanctuary.” Or, “My shul is a warm and welcoming place, as opposed to that shul, which I’ve heard is cold and clique-ish.”

Whenever I hear this kind of talk, there’s a part of me that smiles, and at least an equal part that winces. I smile because I understand where that kind of language comes from, and that it usually is innocently employed. I wince because it does a tremendous injustice to the synagogue as an institution, and evidences a seriously mistaken notion of what a synagogue is, and how it works.

A synagogue is not a person. It doesn’t think, or have ideas, or welcome, or run blood drives or other programs. Its members do. A synagogue is a building, or, if you would prefer, a religious corporation. It is an organization that Jews attend or join, of their own volition, to find community and spiritual succor. As an organization, it takes on the qualities of its members, both for better and for worse.

There is a lot of talk in the synagogue world these days about what is being called “relational Judaism,” so named because of a Ron Wolfson book by the same name. Essentially, what Wolfson posits is that a synagogue or havurah that doesn’t enhance the sense of connectedness between its members is doomed to spiritual failure. In an era of increasing alienation and disconnectedness, people seek out community in synagogues, but what they’re looking for, much more than organizational structure, is people to know who they are and care about them. It is a theme that surfaces time and again; people want to be touched. They want someone to know that they exist, and that they matter. Buildings can’t to that; people can.

Whenever someone speak of a synagogue being warm and welcoming, or hosting certain kinds of programs, it is because that synagogue’s members– or at least some of them– have taken it upon themselves to make that happen. A synagogue is only as effective in outreach as the energies expended by its core members to make others feel welcome. It is not as easy as it sounds. Truly making people feel comfortable in a spiritual setting that is as familiar to you as your own clothing does not come naturally to most people.

I am one of those unusual rabbis who has spent his entire career as a rabbi at one synagogue, The Forest Hills Jewish Center. Over thirty-two years, as you might imagine, I’ve had the opportunity to establish deep and impactful relationships with lots of wonderful people, outstanding synagogue members of all ages and life circumstances. I know my members well, and they know me. Actually, they’ve watched me “grow up,” from a young rabbi newly married with no children to an older, middle-aged rabbi with four “children,” now all grown. When I look out at a service on a Shabbat morning, or at any large gathering of synagogue members whether spiritual or social, I often marvel at how much our lives have become intertwined, to the degree that our stories– our personal narratives– are to some degree shared.

But the deeper truth is that much of our knowledge of each other is made up of what we have chosen to share through the years, and this is true not only of rabbis and their congregations but rather of everyone in a closely bound community like a synagogue. People do not share things about themselves that they don’t want the community to know, and what the community as a whole sees of someone is not necessarily the sum total of what makes that person who he/she is. Rare is the week that goes by where I don’t have a conversation with a synagogue member in which I learn something truly significant about him/her that I didn’t know before. Invariably, that kind of revelation leaves me wondering just how much about the people in my own community I really know.

Amidst all of the vitally important and timely talk about “relational Judaism” and its impact on effective outreach to the stranger, I think that the synagogue world still has a long way to go in creating a safe space for its own members to open up more fully to each other, even before making that space for others to fit into. A synagogue needs to be a place within which one (and one’s family) can be less than perfect, and still fit in. Good outreach is hard. This is harder.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.