Choosing a Synagogue

A little help with a big decision

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As much as a synagogue is a prayer community, it is also a place where Jews gather in order to socialize, be educated, commit to social action, be inspired, and gain counsel. Although communities with smaller Jewish populations may be “one-synagogue-towns,” larger metropolitan areas often provide Jews with a variety of different synagogues from which to choose.

No one synagogue is likely to satisfy all of your needs. But, it is important to find the best match between you and your chosen congregation. Each synagogue, or shul (in Yiddish), has its own character or personality. The shul’s personality is reflected in the behavior of its members, clergy, ritual style, and services. Taking the time to think about what you are seeking from a synagogue community and how that corresponds to the available options is the first step in creating a meaningful connection with a synagogue.

Doing Your Homework

Today, it is easy to gather a great deal of information regarding local synagogues without leaving your home. The first step is to find the names and locations of local shuls. (You can use this guide, which links you to sites that list synagogues by location.)
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You can also check the website of your local Jewish Federation (if one exists) or use your favorite search engine to look for “synagogue” plus your hometown and state. Larger Jewish communities often have a local board of rabbis, which you can also contact for information. Most congregational communities in North America are listed on the Internet.

In addition, your local phonebook may have a section dedicated to “Jewish,” “synagogues,” or some other relevant heading. Friends may also be a reliable source of recommendations and information, and they may also point you to alternative Jewish communities--such as havurot (small, informal Jewish community groups) and lay-led minyanim (prayer gatherings of at least 10 Jewish adults)--that may meet inside a synagogue or exist independently.

The second step is to gather information about each congregation. Call local congregations to request membership information and meet with staff. Usually, congregations will have a packet on hand for prospective members. Websites can give you a great glimpse at the personality of the congregation, its programs, and the types of services it provides.

Even with the accessibility of information, there is no substitute for visiting the congregations you are considering. On such visits, be sure to sit in on a Shabbat or holiday service, meet with professional staff, and socialize with both new and veteran members. Synagogues with well-organized membership committees may provide you with a “host,” a member (or family) of the congregation who can give you a tour, sit with you during services or activities, and follow-up with you by phone later.

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