Choosing a Synagogue
A little help with a big decision
What Resources Do I Need?
The next step is to assess what resources you might need or prefer from a shul.
* Rabbi. Not all congregations have rabbis. Smaller congregations may have a rabbi who only works part-time. Rabbis serve different roles in different congregations. Some focus primarily on organizing the ritual life of the congregation--leading and speaking at services, conducting lifecycle events, and arranging holiday celebrations. Others leave much of that to lay leaders or the cantor. There are rabbis whose role is largely pastoral, providing counseling, serving as a chaplain at the local hospital, and working one-on-one with individuals exploring their Jewish paths. Teaching is often a major pursuit of a rabbi in a congregation.
* School. Many synagogues in North America have an after-school and/or Sunday-school program or a day-long program of secular and Jewish studies. A congregation might also have a preschool.
* Children’s programming for Shabbat and holidays. A significant number of synagogues provide special services and activities for young children and teens.
* Special interest groups (Israel advocacy, teens, singles, older adults, sisterhood, brotherhood) or havurot. Most synagogues have groups that provide additional programming and more intimate communities within the larger synagogue.
* Does the synagogue have an adult education program and/or a learners’ service? Learning is a spiritual experience highly emphasized in Judaism. Today, many congregations provide lifelong-learning opportunities.
* Are the facility and its programs accessible to individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities? Some communities have older buildings that have not yet been remodeled for wheelchair access to their main entrance and/or their bimah (the stage-like, elevated area at the front of many synagogue sanctuaries). Some religious schools may not feel equipped to educate blind, hearing-impaired, or developmentally challenged students. Others are ability to fully welcome Jews with disabilities to their services and schools.
When you have gathered all your research, interviewed community members and staff, and visited the congregation, don’t forget to process your feelings regarding the community. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How was I treated when I made my inquiries and visited? Did staff and members go out of their way to make me feel welcome?
2. Do I feel comfortable participating in their services?
3. Do I feel like I can connect to the rabbi and/or cantor?
4. Did I feel like I fit in? Were there congregants present at my stage of life?
In the end, you are the only judge as to the fit of a congregation. Choosing a shul and community are not permanent decisions, and it is worthwhile to reassess your affiliation if you feel uncomfortable with your congregation at any time. However, for many people, a synagogue can be a lasting community, a second home, a place for learning and celebrating, and an extended family.
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