By Rabbi Perry Tirschwell
We live in an age when people increasingly choose to daven with people who are just like them. They are most comfortable going to a shul where the potato kugel at the weekly kiddush has just the amount of salt they like and the cholent has the exact proportion of meat and potatoes they favor. And, when it comes to membership dues, people more and more judge their options based on their pocketbooks.
In today’s times, people tend to be satisfied davening in a place where these somewhat superficial needs are adequately met. They do not necessarily see the need to become involved in either an established or a fledgling shul if there is a minyan in their neighborhood that offers good company, good food, and good deals on membership fees.
Why should one join a full-service synagogue if his davening and learning needs can be met by a shtiebel or a local yeshiva? Is the idea of joining an established shul an outdated concept?
I believe that today we need shuls more than ever. Shuls enable our families to enjoy a spiritual haven that also offers an unparalleled array of religious and social benefits:
We all need a rabbi. We all benefit immensely from a trained, learned, and experienced pastor who shares deeply insightful advice when we encounter personal challenges. There is tremendous value in being able to turn to someone, day or night, when we face familial and communal challenges. There is no replacement for being able to interact with a professional rabbi who has a keen understanding of the world in which we live.
Women deserve religious inspiration too. Community shuls have a women’s section in which females can daven comfortably, and they provide quality shiurim for women on a variety of relevant and insightful topics. They often provide a book club, women’s dancing on Simchat Torah, communal “pot luck” shalosh seudot meals, and multiple minyanim on Shabbat so that men can daven earlier and then come home, thereby enabling their wives to go to shul.
The value of diversity. Our families’ lives are greatly enriched by interacting with people whose avodat Hashem (religious life) is inspired by things that we may have not previously experienced in a profound way. Learning from others who may not be exactly like us is an important part of life, and one which lends itself to the greater exchange of ideas and information that contributes to our religious and spiritual growth.
Youth programs. Though we sacrifice much to send our children to yeshiva, our children (in general) view school as something that they have to do, not something that they would do if they had a choice. In addition, our children’s religious connection as adults will most probably be through a shul, not through a yeshiva. Full-service shuls offer a broad array of programming for our children, including Shabbat morning and afternoon groups, junior congregation, teen minyan, “Popsicles in the Park,” oneg Shabbat programs, boys’ choirs, and motzaei Shabbat parent-child learning.
A sense of community. When you are part of a shul, you are a member of a communal family of people that go out of their way for each other in good times and bad. In a shul, you belong to a group of dedicated individuals who dream and create terrific things together for the betterment of the entire community, such as chesed committees, mikvaot, concerts, and eiruvin.
Religious inspiration. Belonging to a shul affords us the opportunity to be inspired religiously far beyond the standard minyanim and shiurim. Scholars-in-residence programs, pre-Selichot programs, and Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat HaGadol derashot are just some of the ways in which our shuls enable us to become better people and better Jews.
Social programming. In addition to the religious and spiritual aspects that define our shuls, a synagogue also provides us a with a venue for good, “kosher” fun that we would not otherwise experience on our own, such as comedy nights, missions to Israel, film festivals, women’s dance classes, tennis tournaments, pro sports games, skeet shooting, and much more.
The raison d’Ãªtre of a national synagogue organization such as the National Council of Young Israel is to enable shuls to share best practices with each other, and to maximize synagogues’ strength in numbers. By coordinating joint health-insurance policies, publishing newsletters highlighting proven and effective great ideas, providing coaching and consulting for rabbis, and conducting training for boards and executive directors, national synagogue organizations can help synagogues be transformative vehicles for Jewish continuity, community-building, and spiritual growth. v
Rabbi Perry Tirschwell is the executive director of the National Council of Young Israel. Rabbi Tirschwell is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva University, and RIETS, and holds a master’s degree in School Administration and Supervision from the College of New Rochelle. He is very happily married to Miriam, a speech therapist in the public schools, and they have five daughters, ages 14—24.