How often have you heard people say, “I am a Jew at heart although I do not go to the synagogue much?” Somehow during the High Holidays Jews seem to flock to the synagogue in much greater numbers. What, however, should the role of a synagogue be in the life of a Jew?
Historically, the synagogue only became a permanent institution in Jewish communities after the destruction of the first temple when most Jews were exiled to Babylonia.
The synagogue has lasted the test of time and has traditionally served as a house of study, guest house, and an all around community centre but primarily it was a house of God, a place designated for communal worship.
The Jewish underbelly
The state of the synagogue said much about the community that it served. Throughout our history our enemies have targeted the synagogue in order to hurt us knowing just how dear the synagogue was to the Jews.
Indeed the fortunes of the Jews can be traced by the building and destruction of their synagogues. The wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe are a point at hand. They were the most magnificent synagogues imaginable the art that they contained was both priceless and beautiful.
Together with the communities that worshiped in them they were all destroyed by the Nazis or the Polls. The few wooden synagogues left standing were turned into stables, warehouses and garages. Out of ten such synagogues, only one has Jewish symbol left in.
About nine years ago I visited a small town in Latvia called Kuldiga it used to have a Jewish population of over 10,000 – all killed by the Nazis. We looked for the Jewish cemetery it was still intact but the synagogue had been turned into a theatre – a sign that there was not even one Jew left in the town.
When our detractors wanted to weaken our link to our faith they tried to weaken our connection to our synagogues.
In Mohammedan lands, the rule of Islam began with an edict against the synagogue. It was decreed in the "pact of Omar” in 637 CE that no new synagogues may be built in countries which would be conquered. Old synagogues were not to be repaired. The caliph Al-Mutawakkil confirmed this edict in 850 CE by decreeing that all synagogues must be transformed into mosques.
They know how precious the synagogue was to Jews. Jews used to pour vast amounts of money into their synagogue – it was their pride and joy. The more beautiful that synagogue the greater the pride and while the private home of a Jew may have been neglected the synagogue was always looked after meticulously.
Throughout the ages the synagogue was the very symbol of Jewish life. In any area if one wants to know whether Jews live there we ask is there a synagogue – there is no communal worship without a synagogue if there is no communal worship there is probably little Jewish life.
It’s a symbol
Traditionally if a Jew turned his back on the synagogue it meant he was turning his back on his people and his religion.
While I was a congregational rabbi in the UK many people told me that their main reason for becoming a member of a synagogue was so that they could get enrolled in the Jewish burial scheme that the synagogue offered.
When I pointed out that taking out Family Funeral Insurance was considerably cheaper then belonging to a synagogue, they used to say that although that may be true they still would like to belong to a synagogue. This illogical attitude puzzled me.
What is it about belonging to a synagogue that is worth so much money? The answer however is clear: it is Jewish tradition to be involved with the synagogue. A Jew without a synagogue is akin to the night without the moon. We all know that being affiliated with a synagogue is an important part of our identity. This is why when two Jews meet for the first time they ask each other: which synagogue do you belong to?
If our identity as Jews can be measured by our membership to a synagogue it follows that our connection to Judaism can also be assessed by our level of association to our synagogue. Although the idiom, “Judaism is in the home and in the heart” is true, however, a wholesome relationship with the synagogue is an indication of a good Jewish home and a strong Jewish heart.
So in answer to the question: What should the role of a synagogue be in the life of a Jew? It must play very central role. We need to not only belong to a synagogue but also attend the synagogue as much as we can to pray and worship. But one must not forget: although the synagogue is primarily a place of communal worship it is also a place of learning and communal life.
If the building is there we must make use of it – our connection with it is the barometer of our Judaism. Remember that the synagogue is really our home away from home. So while in Shul reconnecting with God this Yom Kippur we should not forget to reconnect with the synagogue as well.