Do you “get shul?”

Do we as a community of people praying in shul for thousands of years actually get what it is, or what it is supposed to be? A year or two ago I would have answered one way. Now, having served as director of the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union for almost a year and a half, my answer has changed.

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Last August I attended a very meaningful gathering of young rabbis. As we made our way around the circle each rabbi detailed where he hailed from and the number of members he was responsible for in his congregation – one hundred families, six hundred families and so on.

The first year I attended I answered, “Between ninety to one hundred families.” The following year I responded that I was now responsible for many hundreds of synagogues. You might call that a slightly altered perspective. I used to focus on the ins and outs of my shul and community. Now I have to think, analyze and prepare for most of the shuls and communities in North America.

It so happens that I spend a lot of time in shul, not just in the morning or evening and on Shabbos, and not just my shul, but in many locales around the United States and Canada. As department director, shul is on my mind and the minds of our staff all the time – how to improve this, enhance that, youth programs, adult learning, fundraising, etc.

What I often wonder is why people actually go to shul. In my travels to synagogues across the country I ask congregants and rabbis, “What are you doing here?” “Why do you spend so much time in this place?” “What is this place?”

These are legitimate and fair questions we all (including rabbis) struggle with, some asking aloud, others just in their thoughts, and at times we even find a real answer.

To be sure, I have seen many incredible places of worship and bastions of Torah study. I have come across many inspiring rabbinic and lay leaders, as well as “regular” members who are so dedicated to the Jewish people and the advancement of religious life that I gain perhaps more from my visits than they do. It is not that I only visit large mega-shuls, but the more remote, off the beaten track places as well. There are some amazing leaders and teachers out there, and we are proud to have them within our community.

Additionally, many people I speak to around the Shabbos table or at Kiddush or at meetings relate that they are very happy and satisfied with their synagogue experiences.

The learning, the chevra, the rabbi, the teaching, the youth programs, the davening are looked upon very favorably, which is so encouraging to hear and certainly to experience.

Nonetheless, the question still remains: What is shul?

Recently I attended a meeting with a group of lay leaders in the process of establishing a mission and vision statement for their synagogue’s future. For a good period of time the matter of what the shul is all about was debated. Most focused on one of three areas: davening, learning, or social networking. All were correct – in part.

People go to shul, join a shul or connect to a shul for one, two or all three reasons. The sum total of these answers falls somewhat short of the cohesive vision as to what shul is or should be. Each is integral to the success and draw of the shul, but may miss the deepest goal.

Let’s step back into our history for a moment. Most authorities on the topic of synagogues would agree that our modern-day shuls are based on the concept of “mikdash me’at,” that is, a mini-mikdash. Over the course of millennia we have built our shuls to match or at least replace what we lost with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

If this premise is true, then we must ask this question: What in fact did the Temple serve?

Certainly, the Temple served as the home of God on earth. It was the nexus point where heaven and earth met, and perhaps more importantly where we as people interacted, connected and experienced God through prayer, learning, offering and gathering – similar to the reasons mentioned above for today’s shuls.

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