“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism” (CCAR, 1999) says, “We are committed to strengthening the people Israel by making the synagogue central to Jewish communal life, so that it may elevate the spiritual, intellectual and cultural quality of our lives.”
How did the synagogue achieve such a remarkable and central position in Jewish life?
Exodus 25:8 tells the Israelites, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Tradition says the tabernacle they built in the first year following the exodus traveled with them for the next 39 years. Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple replaced the long-lost portable sanctuary. The Temple’s destruction and Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. called forth a new institution—later called “synagogue”—where God could “dwell” as before. Prayer replaced sacrifices as a way of coming closer to God; rabbis succeeded priests. As author Brian de Breffny explains, the synagogue “grew and developed… as a place where the sacred texts were read…where the people could gather on the Sabbath to hear God’s words and to pray…as a communal centre, not only of the religious, but also of the social, cultural…commercial life of the people. Eventually the synagogue was to become to the community what the home is to the individual.” From its inception, the synagogue was our beit knesset—house of assembly, beit midrash—house of learning, and beit t’fillah—house of prayer.
Why did our ancestors want God to “dwell among them”? The Encyclopaedia Judaica says, “The sanctuary is the embodiment of Israel’s concept of holiness; all the minutiae of the specifications conjoin to illustrate how ‘the holy nation’ and ‘the kingdom of priests’ can serve the One Holy God ‘in the beauty of holiness.’ The Creator of the universe also dwells among men.”
Today, who are the people who dwell within our synagogues? In his article, “Members and Motives: Who Joins American Congregations and Why”, researcher and HUC-JIR professor Dr. Steven Cohen comments: “In Reform congregations, one must be impressed with the notably large number among married couples where at least one spouse was raised outside of Judaism….In 43% of Reform couples, either a husband or wife did not have a Jewish childhood.…The presence of such a large number… undoubtedly presents distinctive challenges—and opportunities—to Reform leadership.”
Notably, in the “RJ Guide to Reform Judaism: 30 Stories,” 20% of the participants are Jews by choice. In 1978, the Union formalized welcoming non-Jewish spouses into congregations and encouraged conversion to Judaism when it created its Outreach Department. Almost three decades later URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie reaffirmed Reform Outreach by emphasizing conversion as a goal: “Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert.… Alongside the lengthy list of our Outreach successes, this must be counted at least a partial failure. The time has come to reverse course by returning to public conversions and doing the other things that encourage conversions in our synagogues.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
- Do you see your synagogue as the place to get closer to God? How else can you get “close” to God?
- What activities in your synagogue fulfill the synagogue’s three functions—social connections, learning, and prayer? In which functions do you participate?
- What does your congregation do to make strangers feel at home? What can you do to help?
- What does your congregation do—and what do you do—to promote community? How can you help make your synagogue a place of belonging for all?
- What ideas above best exemplify why you belong to your synagogue? How do you explain that belonging to others? What do or would you say to unaffiliated friends to encourage them to be part of the temple community?
- Have you ever encouraged a non-Jewish family member or someone in your congregation to consider conversion to Judaism? If so, how did the person respond?
- What does your congregation do to publicly welcome converts to Judaism?
- For religious school and youth groups:
- What can you tell unaffiliated friends about your program to get them interested?
- Would you like your youth group to be a “portable sanctuary”? What changes would you like to see? How can you make them happen?
Section II Questions for Discussion
Participants responded to three questions, in bold below.
What inspired you to become a Reform Jew or to join/ return to the Jewish people?
1. What’s Your Perspective? Jot down your own answers. If you’re in a group, list 2-3 answers from each person. How do your reasons compare with the respondents’ and with those in your group?
2. Welcoming the Non-Jew: Non-Jewish Dana Jennings’ acceptance as a son-in-law, prompted by the “Reform ethic” of his Jewish fiancée’s family, opened the door to his Jewishness. Do you know anyone with a similar experience? What choices did she or he make, and why?
3. Welcoming the Stranger: Martin Shapiro says his attraction to Reform came through a welcoming Friday night service. What have been your experiences visiting congregations for the first time? How have these experiences influenced your Jewish choices?
4. Congregational Community: In different ways, many respondents describe the profound effect of congregational community. How are you building community in synagogue and home? Could you do more?
5. Prayers Chanted in Hebrew: These attracted Andi Rosenthal. Martin Graffman finds them “empowering” and “exhilarating.” Have you had similar experiences? Would you like more or less Hebrew chanting at services? Why?
6. Teach Your Children Well: Marge Eiseman and Judy Fisher joined the synagogue for the religious school…but stayed on for themselves as much as for the rest of their family. Was religious school a factor in your synagogue selection? What has kept you involved? What would bring you to the synagogue more often?
7. The Times They Are A’Changin’: Dick Israel felt most fulfilled in Reform’s “willing-to-try-change” setting. How important is synagogue change for you? Which changes in your synagogue have you liked/disliked? What synagogue changes would you be willing to work for?
What has belonging to a congregation that is part of the larger Reform Movement meant to you?
The 2 respondents to this question sound the same note: The Union for Reform Judaism has offered invaluable help with planning and program.
1. Review the “Strength in Belonging” sidebar. Which services and programs has your congregation utilized? How has your synagogue experienced that feeling of “Strength in Belonging” to a larger Reform Movement?
2. How might the Union be able to help you now?
How would you envision your ideal synagogue?
1. An Evaluation Opportunity: This open-ended “wish-list” question is an opportunity to evaluate what you have and figure out how to make it even better. How can you make your voice heard in deciding what your congregation ought to be like? For example, might the board poll the membership? (The Union can be very helpful with this. Go to www.urj.org.) Consider putting the question to friends in the congregation and sharing the results with staff members and lay leaders.
2. Pulsing with Life: Steve Arnold and Laurence Kaufman envision a synagogue “pulsing with life 24/7,” with significant participation in worship, study, social action, Israel. Similarly, Marge Eiseman says, “In my vision, everyone is involved somehow in learning, prayer, or social action/gemilut chasadim, because to me Judaism is a religion of doing.” Your congregation is certainly pulsing during religious school and youth hours, and probably for services. Do you share the vision of a 24/7 pulse? What activities would you like to see pulsing with congregational involvement? What might you do to increase the “pulse”?
3. Safe Haven: Judy Fisher seeks a safe haven away from politics and a “crazy world.” Is that a role you wish for your synagogue? If yes, what might you do to bring it about?
4. In God’s Image: Fisher also wishes the synagogue to function in the spirit of “created in God’s image (b’tzelem elohim).” What does this mean to you?
5. The Portable Sanctuary: What elements enable Liz Bossov and her youth group friends to create a “portable sanctuary”? What ideas might this practice inspire?