February 20, 2020

Rediscover the Role of the Synagogue

A small but meaningful reversal of the exodus took place after Sept. 11. Jews in communities across the country returned to their synagogues for spiritual sustenance during this crisis. Indeed, although they came on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, what will motivate them to keep coming back? As we acknowledge the upcoming anniversary since that extraordinary day, it seems timely and important to look at what our synagogues can and could be contributing to the healing and strengthening process. The timeliness is amplified, of course, by the presence of the High Holidays, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming in its shadow.

In considering the impact of what is arguably the single most cataclysmic event to befall the United States in this generation, professor Lew Smith of Fordham University wrote in Education Week that social institutions such as schools must seize this moment in our history to define their purposes. We believe that there is a strong parallel to his question in the recurring question that seems to be asked by many in our community: “What are shuls for?”

The American Jewish community is in a rare state of clear universal need for guidance and direction. Will synagogues move toward greater relevance and vitality? Will they renew and transform their relationships not only with congregants but with their communities? Following a framework established by Smith as a guide, we provide some guidance to aid in these important reflections. They represent aspects of the human condition that make our lives fulfilling, enriching and contributing. As you read them, consider not only the extent to which each describes a synagogue with which you might be affiliated, but also ask yourself where, in your life, you find this purpose being filled in addition to, or instead of, the synagogue.

While your answers may surprise you, they may serve as an outline for your community’s plan for synagogue renewal, as well as your personal, spiritual renewal.

Synagogues as Centers for Caring and Comfort

Amid the current crisis, many synagogues have become expanded sources of support and concern. Even bikur cholim (visiting the sick) and related activities of reaching out to those in need have accelerated. There have been more town meetings and more caring phone calls from synagogue leaders, professionals, rabbis and fellow congregants. Synagogues have served as places where those touched directly or indirectly by tragedy can find a comforting hand.

This need not happen only in times of disaster. Must one have dramatic needs in order to receive caring and comfort from the community?

Synagogues as Centers for Service

When the rabbis wrote in Pirke Avot that the world was founded on the pillars of Torah (law and ethics), avodah (prayer and service) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), they did not make an addendum that stated, “only in difficult times.”

At the World Trade Center, as well as at the Pentagon, people of all faiths and of no faith have come together out of deep human kindness to provide service to those they knew and loved and those they did not know. Such service is the glue that binds humanity. It is what helped us to overcome the evil that beset us in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and the skies over Pennsylvania, a reminder that the core of humanity remains essentially good. Yet, too often, the service activities in our synagogues are responses to crisis, relegated to special committees, or pursued as sporadic concerns. We know those who serve are better for it, as are those who are served. However, such work stands in competition with the siren song of pop culture and material concerns that seem to lure us away from opportunities to nourish the soul and brighten the lives of others. The synagogue can be a force to help communities pull together and enrich those who engage in the work in ways that “C.S.I.,” “Monday Night Football,” the latest DVD of “Shrek” with director’s cuts and, yes, even reruns of “Friends,” cannot quite approach.

Synagogues as Centers of Thoughtful Inquiry

The best of our rabbis threw out their sermons for the High Holidays and created something new to match the events unfolding. They modeled thoughtful inquiry. How do the events around us relate to Jewish tradition, law, custom and practice? What insights can we get to help us understand and act constructively? What conflicts do we find? What values are in competition within our tradition? Within our secular institutions? In the way in which our religious lives and secular lives intersect? Inquiry should also encompass the question, “What does our congregation stand for? What are our strongest beliefs and commitments? From where do they emanate, and how shall we enact them thoughtfully?”

The world around us contained terrorism before Sept. 11. It contained threats to our freedom at the cost of security. It contained injustice and unfairness. Before Sept. 11, our communities constantly posed challenges with regard to our youth, our senior citizens, those who are ill, troubled, homeless, hungry or bereaved, and our relationship with Israel, with other congregations, and with other religious institutions. These matters were, and are, begging for our attention, both Jewishly and intellectually. Some would maintain that thoughtful inquiry, in congregational life, is like physical exercise.

Done continuously, one’s capacity increases, ability to meet new challenges expands, and positive sense of health and accomplishment deepen. Done sporadically, exercise is a source of discomfort, even embarrassment and hardly fulfilling. It leads to a feeling of one step forward, two steps back. The same may be said about thoughtful inquiry in congregational life. Synagogues can serve individuals, their Jewish constituents, and their surrounding communities as catalysts of conscience. But do they?

Synagogues as Centers for Dynamic Leadership

In America, it is well-known that shy people are at a distinct disadvantage. The same may be said about shy shuls. What is the source of “shul shyness”? Consider this lesson from Sept. 11. A businessman saw the collapse of the Towers and ran toward the rubble, once the dust cloud allowed, to help out. He started working with firefighters and other rescuers to pull away massive amounts of debris, to free the living and give dignity to the dead.

After those initial, frenzied hours, he remained at Ground Zero to assist in the rescue and recovery operation. When asked about his actions, he said that he never did anything like this before in his life and never imagined that he could. He allowed himself to listen to his heart and to respond to the needs around him. He did not care what he looked like, what objections he might encounter, who might think it was inappropriate, or whether he was “good enough.” He reacted at the most human level and from his soul emerged the work of gemilut chasadim.

Synagogue leaders speak out when there is a visible and clear threat. They risk dealing with controversy in their communities, within their congregations, or with other organizations, whether secular or Jewish. But there were many threats to the Jewish soul — of the individual and of the community — before those misdirected planes were crashed into buildings. If we had the courage to look at each incident of terror as an abomination worthy of our concern and vociferous objections, perhaps terrorists would gather less momentum and strength and events like those of Sept. 11 could be prevented.

Dynamic leadership is proactive, as well as reactive. Dynamic leadership is not “followership.” It promotes a shared vision, builds capacities of individuals and groups in its organization, challenges people to do what they do better and to think about what else they can do, and galvanizes subgroups and the whole to act in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Dynamic leadership was important on Sept. 10; indeed, lack of leadership in the days prior to Sept. 11 might well have contributed to the tragedy. Dynamic leadership will continue to be important as the events of Sept. 11 unfold and as other horrific events occur. To what extent do our synagogues provide dynamic, and even anticipatory, leadership?

Synagogues as Centers of Spirituality and Community

Seymour Sarason, emeritus professor of psychology at Yale University, one of the founders of the field of community psychology and a preeminent observer of the human scene for the better part of the 20th Century, said in 1974 that we face an epidemic of loneliness and alienation in our society. He believes that this is the result of growing individualism in our culture and the rejection of the compromises and inconveniences of community life and institutions.

Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s “The Jew Within” (Indiana University, 2000) and Bethamie Horowitz’s “Connections and Journeys” study has found a growing trend toward “pick and choose” Judaism that is rooted in the preferences of individuals rather than the commitments to the community. There is always a balance of such considerations, but the data from recent research suggests that the pattern is shifting strongly away from community.

Spirituality emanates from an integration of the individual, the community and tradition.
But spirituality is also about bridging the gap between the individual and God through a covenantal relationship. And this, for sure, must be nurtured by the synagogue.

These trends fly in the face of what Sarason and others have identified as a deep human need for transcendence, to believe that life has meaning and purpose beyond the experiences of the moment. Sarason believes that a sense of community is an essential element of human well-being. Somewhere in their lives, people need forums to ask questions about the meaning of life and the importance of community. They need to nurture that part of themselves that is spiritual. It is obvious that the synagogue should be the most logical place for this to happen, but it does not seem to be so. What do we derive from our communal gatherings to pray? How can we sustain our communal liturgy while also meeting individual needs to express other things? These are questions of deceptive complexity and will be disquieting if pursued.

As the Jewish tradition shows with great insight, spirituality emanates from an integration of the individual, the community and tradition. But spirituality is also about bridging the gap between the individual and God through a covenantal relationship. And this, for sure, must be nurtured by the synagogue.

For most people, attaining a sense of spirituality is a cherished but fleeting occurrence. In its pursuit, people are likely to experience as much uncertainty as they do comfort because they will be immersed in community and tradition as well as their own individual needs and preferences. Too often, however, synagogues seem reluctant to confront difficult questions and hard moral and ethical choices brought about by Jews interactions with the secular world.

Perhaps fear of raising difficult questions relates to fear of losing members and the dues they represent. The classical Hebrew prophets were willing to confront humanity in all its aspects as necessary to bring us closer to God, but are synagogues ready to add a bit of existential inner turmoil to their agendas in the service of that goal?

Synagogues Must Be Based On Principles

The events of Sept. 11 have added angst to all of our agendas. Perhaps the level of discomfort is more intense than before, but it is not about something that is unknown in our experience. Yet angst did not prevail, nor did despair. In both America and Israel, senseless destruction, tragic loss, horrific acts perpetrated by people on those who were innocent and, in some cases, even of people of shared beliefs, lack of vigilance, have been juxtaposed against tremendous heroism, selflessness, leadership, ingenuity, and courage. The American culture seems to be most responsive to big events, big losses, big injustices, big tragedies.

While the scale of human tragedy often motivates community response, synagogues must be places that are based on principle. And principle is not a matter of scale. Some would maintain that synagogues need to be the beacons of light –Torah-generated light — in a sea of relativistic and consumer-oriented morality.

Finding Spirituality

We maintain that comfort and caring, service, thoughtful inquiry, dynamic leadership, spirituality and community are essential aspects of human life. To be fulfilled as human beings, people need to find places where these aspects of life can be experienced in positive and constructive ways. For Jews, the synagogue may not be the only forum in which to meet these needs, but the shul that addresses them will be a place of great value. What is a synagogue for? What is the place of a synagogue in your life? Through what affiliations do you find you are most able to fulfill the essential aspects of human life outlined above? These questions may not have had pressing importance prior to Sept. 11; now, they should point the way toward a rediscovery and renewal of the role of synagogues in our communities and in our lives.

Dr. Maurice Elias is professor at the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and FAS Department of Psychology at Rutgers University. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City and is a fellow in the Center for Jewish Studies, Graduate School and University Center, CUNY. They can be reached at mjeru@aol.com.