Choosing a Synagogue

A little help with a big decision

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Denominations

Many Jews identify with a particular Jewish congregational movement. Others reject denominational labels or find the differences among the denominations to be confusing. In addition, the denominational scene in North America has changed considerably in recent years with the addition of new expressions of Judaism. (You can find information on the different denominations here.)

It is important to understand that even within a movement, synagogues vary widely in their style of services, ritual observances, and congregational structures. For example:

* Some Conservative synagogues use musical instruments on Shabbat, while others do not. Conservative synagogues also vary in how much Hebrew they use in prayer and the extent to which they adhere to traditional liturgy or use modern alternatives. A very small number of Conservative congregations are not egalitarian, meaning women are not counted toward a minyan and cannot lead services.

* Reform synagogues likewise differ on the Hebrew-English balance in services, and in the length of their services.

* Some Orthodox congregations are more liberal than others when it comes to women's roles in synagogue life. Liberal synagogues might hold women's-only minyanim, for instance, while more right-wing congregations do not.

; * Though the denominations have official stances on how they treat gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Jews, congregations within each movement differ in how those policies are enacted.

A growing number of congregations have chosen not to align themselves with a particular movement for practical and/or philosophical reasons. Smaller, newer congregations often do not affiliate because they feel they cannot afford movement dues. Congregations with spiritual leaders who have not been trained by the conventional rabbinical programs often do not belong to a denomination and frequently view themselves as standing outside the institutions of mainstream Judaism. Some congregations are too eclectic in their observances, beliefs, and practices to feel represented by any of the movements.

Generally, it is a good idea to ask why an unaffiliated congregation has chosen to remain so, although this alone is not usually a reason to eliminate a congregation from consideration.

What Type Will Serve Me Best?

When contemplating membership in a synagogue, many adults find that they reflect on the synagogue(s) in which they have participated in the past. Such reflection is important, even if it gives you a list of what you don’t want a congregation to be. It is important to know yourself and what you and/or your family would like in a congregational community. Ask yourself the following:

* Would I prefer a smaller synagogue where I’d be likely to get personal attention or a larger congregation which offers more services and activities? Larger congregations provide a greater variety of prayer services, schooling options, activities for children and adults, professional leadership, and facility uses. A smaller congregation usually will be more tightly knit, have one rabbi (or none), and have fewer options in programs and activities. Some individuals feel lost in the crowd at a large synagogue. Others feel they cannot find the resources they need at a smaller congregation.

* Do I want a synagogue of people uniformly at or near my observance level? Do I prefer a synagogue that aspires to a level of observance I can work toward?

* How near to my home must a synagogue be? Remember that the types of activities in which you and/or your family participate will determine the frequency at which you travel this distance round-trip.

* Do I prefer services with or without musical accompaniment? Many congregations make use of musical instruments in their services to enhance the beauty and inspirational power of the prayer experience. Orthodox, most Conservative, and other traditional synagogues do not use instruments, since the playing of instruments on Shabbat and holidays is forbidden according to their understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).

* Do I prefer services with more or less Hebrew? Regardless of Hebrew ability, there are plenty of people for whom a service with English readings just doesn’t feel comfortable. Others--having little reading ability in or comprehension of Hebrew--find an all-Hebrew service to be uncomfortable. Even some who are fluent in Hebrew find that a few English readings enhance the participatory feeling of a service.

* How much do I want to spend on synagogue dues and other fees? Synagogues vary widely on this issue--and many expect (or require) members to pay certain annual fees, such as a payment to the building fund, above and beyond dues.

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