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The Synagogue As Our Second Home

I believe we’re at a crossroads where shul life can either thrive or decline. And the outcome is not in the hands of a few powerful rabbinic leaders. It’s up to each of us.

Last week’s cover story in the Jewish Journal asking how synagogues will reinvent themselves hit home for me personally and professionally. I believe we’re at a crossroads where shul life can either thrive or decline. And the outcome is not in the hands of a few powerful rabbinic leaders. It’s up to each of us, which we can view as daunting and anxiety-provoking or invigorating and life-giving. I choose the latter. 

The process was already happening pre-pandemic, as those of us in the pulpit encountered young professionals asking, “Why join a shul? What do I get from synagogue membership?” As a young professional myself, I heard these questions not as a sign of rejection of community, but as an honest outcry about how we can be better. It was a plea, a challenge, to  envision the synagogue as a central part of our daily lives.  

The pandemic fast-tracked the need to answer this question, since we all had to create alternative spiritual experiences, whether online or offline in our homes and backyards. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of us have come to prefer those experiences, which has only accentuated the challenge of the communal synagogue.

What do we want this synagogue life to be? Let me give voice to what many have confessed to me through whispers: There are things we don’t miss at all. And yet, we may have personalized our experience so much that we are finding ourselves on a spiritual island. 

The time has come to be bold. Why do YOU think synagogue life matters? What do you miss most about it and what do you want to change? How do you think we can move from pandemic isolation into deeper relationships and spiritual connection? Recognizing what doesn’t work will be just as essential as lifting up what does. 

In my wildest dream, shul is a place that feels like home. We’re working from home now — why not at shul? Let’s have a nice lounge area, a place to hang with friends. And while I’m in the building, why not pop in for a tefillah or a class? I grew up with my mom as a cantor and rabbi and so shul was truly my second home. Shul can be the place where we want to socialize, bond, learn, pray, and be inspired whenever we are feeling drained. It can be what it was always meant to be: our touchstone for everyday holiness.

The antidote to isolation is stepping outside of ourselves in service of something greater… For only in shul do we support each other across generations in our celebrations and in our losses.

Seeing shul as our second home may mean expanding upon an earlier model— that of the European shtetl or Biblical Temple where life was rooted in where we worship. The antidote to isolation is stepping outside of ourselves in service of something greater, and intergenerational synagogue life gives us that space as a larger family. For only in shul do we support each other across generations in our celebrations and in our losses. This past Shabbat, at the end of our kids’ Torah service, a little girl cried because she wanted to spend more time looking at the Sefer Torah. As we reopened the Torah, her face lit up with joy. I believe that this yearning for holiness exists in all of us. The question is how our shul communities can actualize and nurture it.

The traditional will always be at the core, especially for those of us committed to halacha. Let’s learn from these past two years, and take our observance to the next level in a way that is creative and innovative. We should seize what helped us connect  during the pandemic—God and mitzvot and learning—and let go of the stuff that was getting in the way. 

As both pulpit clergy and a mom who wants her toddler to have a vibrant life of Torah, prayer, and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness), I am with you in this and would love to hear your thoughts. 

This can be a moment of immense opportunity and excitement. Because when we answer the core question “Why join a shul?,” we will uncover what matters most and reveal a new horizon of spiritual innovation and revival.


Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn is a member of the spiritual leadership at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles, and she is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.

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