The Need for the Synagogue Model

We as Reform Jews have for generations called our synagogues “temples.” This is an ideological statement that confirms our existence as Jews in the modern world — that we are not a community in exile, but that we, the Jewish people, can exist wholly within and as an active part of the larger society which exists today. As Reform Jews, we affirm that we have neither need nor desire for the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt and that it has no bearing on our lives today. Our temples are the organizations around which we celebrate our Jewishness.

All too often, Reform Jews focus on our temples as nothing more than a location of worship. We forget that the term “temple” is what we use to describe our synagogues, and we forget what “synagogue” really means. Two Hebrew terms are often used for synagogue: Beit Tefillah means “house of prayer,” and Beit Midrash means “house of study.” Each term gets at an important role the synagogue fulfills, but neither encapsulates the full meaning of the word, or the full function of the institution.

The term “synagogue” comes to us through Old French and Late Latin, originating from the Greek word synagōgḗ, which is derived from the prefix syn- meaning “together” and the verb –ágein meaning “to bring.” It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Beit Knesset, “house of assembly.” This is the notion of the synagogue to which we must hold: the beauty of the synagogue is that we all come together to be together.

Reform Jews, who are tending towards both the secular and the traditional, are unfortunately foregoing the synagogue model and either dissociating completely from the community (at least for the time being) or replacing it with smaller, more focused activities. The latter encompasses organizations such as young professional groups, whether run through the community center or independently, Jewish yoga communities, Jewish daycares, Jewish day schools, and especially independent minyanim. These types of activities certainly have their benefits. They are much smaller and more specialized, which allows the individuals involved to feel a greater sense of similarity and ownership and results in a stronger communal feeling.

Synagogues themselves have, seemingly incidentally, spurred and at the same time adopted this type of specialized gathering. Most synagogues have religious schools and separate adult education programs of some sort. Most synagogues have youth groups and young professional programing, as well as separate men’s clubs and sisterhoods. Then, of course, there are services. All these things seem to exist as different entities. Children go to Sunday school. Adults go to Torah study. Young adults go to youth group. Young professionals go to young professional events. Men go to men’s club. Women go to Sisterhood. Services are services. All are separate. This separation is natural and, at times, useful, but this cannot be the only form of Jewish engagement. We cannot allow these activities to take the place of the synagogue.

The beauty of the synagogue is that we all come together, really to be together. Rather than thinking of these different aspects within the synagogue as separate entities, the different activities, different groups, different types of people (ages, genders, motivations) all ought to be considered a collective whole. In order for this to be the case, these people and groups must interact with one another. The religious school, adult education, youth group, young professionals, men’s clubs, and sisterhoods must come together to express and experience their Judaism together.

This cannot be accomplished by simply doing the same thing in the same space, namely services (in their current form), nor can it take place exclusively within family units, namely family programing. Old and young must truly interact with each other, show their roles within and commitment to the community. These interactions model for the youth their responsibility to the synagogue as they get older and reaffirm for both the young and the old the value which this togetherness provides. Moreover, if these interactions come from outside one’s immediate family, the value of the community and synagogue is truly emphasized. Although the family unit is essential, the value of the synagogue expands beyond a person’s responsibility to their parents and/or children. The interest that unrelated, yet familiar Jewish adults show in the community’s youth provides a much stronger sense of commitment to the synagogue itself rather than just to one’s own offspring. In its essence, the entire community ought to become one’s extended family.

To accomplish this, the various groups of people need to begin interacting on a more regular basis. Simple experiences such as men’s club, sisterhood, and young professional days in the religious school, where these adults return to the classroom and get down on the students’ level to learn with them. Even joint events — barbeques that bring together men’s clubs and sisterhoods, tikkun olam projects done collectively by young professional and youth groups — are significant in shifting to a holistic community mindset.

Then there are services. Family, youth, tot, and young professional services are all important. But there is a significant problem if the existence of these types of group-specific services results in the notion that so-called “regular” services are just for adults. All groups should be welcome at services, and every service ought to have aspects which can be meaningful for these various people. This is just good worship.

The synagogue must fulfill its role as the Beit Tefillah, “house of prayer,” and as the Beit Midrash, “house of study,” but we cannot permit our Temples to lose their most basic and essential purpose as the Beit Knesset, “house of assembly,” or in true intention “house of being together.” Of course, it is important to remain involved in the larger Jewish community. But activities separated from the synagogue, and separated from each other even within the synagogue, cannot provide the same benefit as the synagogue as it ought to be. After all, the beauty of the synagogue is that we all, every aspect of our Reform community, comes together to experience and express our Jewishness together.

David Reinhart

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