Question: Is it proper for Orthodox synagogues to have their parking lots open on Shabbat?
Answer: Many years ago I served as rabbi of a new, pioneer Orthodox shul in West Orange, N.J. The synagogue was adjacent to a large parking lot and I parked my car there one erev Yom Tov. On Yom Tov itself, after one of the tefillot, I was walking home in a torrential rainstorm. Noticing the pathetic figure I presented, one of my congregants who was driving home suddenly stopped and called out, “Rabbi, get in the car, you shouldn’t be out walking. Do you want to get sick?”
I looked at him with surprise and responded, “It’s Yom Tov. Jews aren’t allowed to drive on Yom Tov.” His response has stayed with me ever since: “Rabbi, what are you talking about? Your car is at the shul. If you can drive, so can I. The fact that you are walking must mean that your car wouldn’t start. So get in.”
From that moment on, no matter where I am for Shabbat or Yom Tov, I never park in an open area adjacent to a shul.
As to whether a shul should keep its parking lot open on Shabbat, I am against it for the following reason:
In the 20th century, the majority of members in many Orthodox synagogues were not shomrei Shabbat. Even so, the shul was run according to the standards of halacha. In other words, the shul served as a pristine example of the high ideals of the Torah even if its members couldn’t, or didn’t, currently meet those ideals. Thus, it is important to lock shul parking lots on Shabbat to send a clear message to the membership regarding the sanctity of the shul and Shabbat.
I am aware of all the heteirim (please note my chapter, “Invitations That May Violate Shabbat” in my sefer, Shabbat The Right Way). But I still believe that locking a shul parking lot is a perfect way of educating the public that the shul observes Shabbat and that Shabbat observance is still the goal of all Torah Jews.