We all go to synagogues that we like in some ways and don’t like in others, but have you ever thought about what your fantasy synagogue would be like if you could make one?
Last Shabbat, we were invited for lunch by some wonderful friends who had been sports writers, and the topic of fantasy football came up, where people compete for coming up with the best team by picking their own players and forming their ideal team.
I said, half jokingly, wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same thing with synagogues and pick the best aspects of each and make an ideal house of worship for ourselves where we could pray, learn, grow, and experience holiness and community.
In thinking about this some more, I came up with my ideal synagogue picking from aspects of the various ones that I have attended and this is my close to ideal as possible:
- Holiness/Prayer: While not a synagogue per se, the Kotel, or remaining Western Wall from the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, is really the archetype for all synagogues, and in terms of holiness, nothing compares to the Western Wall in the entire world, where you can literally feel G-d’s majestic and holy presence, pray and put kvitels in between the huge, impressive stones, and I believe have your prayers answered.
- Ark/Sanctuary: The most beautiful Torah Ark in America that I have seen which is both contemporary and beautiful in design and colors is from the Dweck Sanctuary at B’nai Israel synagogue in Rockville, MD. With big and bold images of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, the angelic Cherubim, and a letter ש with wings representing G-d’s holy name, it is outstanding.
- Jewish Tunes/Melodies: In terms of Jewish niggunim (Jewish melodies), nothing can top the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan. Shlomo Carlebach was one of the greats when it came to uplifting and almost hypnotizing Jewish tunes that you could sing near endlessly and couldn’t get out of your head afterwards. From his magical kumzitz around the campfire or Havdalah candle, the Jewish melodies he brought us continue to live in our neshemas.
- Torah/Learning: Aside from prayer, the synagogue is a place to learn Torah and grow oneself intellectually to follow and understand the Torah, its laws, and its relevance to every portion of our lives. While, there are different levels of learning for those from Smicha on down to the beginner, I find that Aish HaTorah does a good job in reaching the masses at whatever level and teaching them to ask the hard questions, delve into the answers, and be better Jews everyday.
- Community/Chesed: Hands down, no one is better at Jewish outreach, building community, and programs than Chabad. They accept with unconditional love each and every Jew, and from helping Jews put on Tefillin or light Shabbat candles, to programs for children and families for Shabbat, holidays and celebrations, to the mitzvah truck that circles our cities in search of doing another good deed, no one is there and everywhere around the world for the Jewish people like these emissaries from Lubavich.
- Rabbi/Teacher: What is a Synagogue without an amazing Rabbi and spiritual leader? I’m sure there are many wonderful Rabbis out there, but one of the nicest and most genuine Rabbis that I have had the opportunity to meet is Rabbi Schneur Kaplan from Downtown Jewish Center Chabad in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He welcomes people with open arms and a pure heart, and from my visits there, I have witnessed how he is always looking to not just teach Torah, but help people live it, mitzvah by mitzvah. I enjoy going to Florida not just for sun, beach and vacation, but literally just to go to Rabbi Kaplan’s synagogue and enjoy the heartfelt services that he leads and spiritually energizes everybody with.
- Kiddish/Food: As the old Jewish saying goes around commemorating and celebrating the Jewish Shabbat and holidays, “They tried to kill us. We Survived. Now let’s eat!” Aside from almost any Chabad shul, one of the best regular kiddishes (or celebratory food after synagogue services) is at the Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Maryland. This synagogue has such a wonderful, dedicated group of people that painstakingly prepare a kiddish feast every week. While the food is good, what is even more important is the opportunity to sit down with family and friends, schmooze with lively discussion on the weekly events, and enjoy each other’s company.
To me, this fantasy synagogue that combines that best attributes of them all is a keeper and in a league of Jewish worship, Torah, chesed, and community all its own. While, maybe this ideal synagogue combining “the best of the best” doesn’t exist today, I believe that we can look forward to the ultimate fantasy synagogue to really manifest when Mashiach comes and the Temple itself is rebuilt, speedily, and in our times.