The ESP of the
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How to Choose the Right Synagogue
I became a Jew in my early 30's. At the time, I was a feisty
Italian-American girl who was looking desperately for some spiritual
meaning and community in my life. I "discovered" Judaism after a couple
of years of "service-hopping," attending varying religious services from
Buddhist to Methodist to (the official religion of my family), Catholic.
It was when I met my (very secular) Jewish husband that I began to study
Judaism. Wow! I understand that in Kabbalah there are references to
"Lost souls" who were meant to be Jewish - I must be one of them.
Judaism fits like a glove. I feel as though I was never a gentile
(although, I'm somewhat painfully reminded at family gatherings when
Granny takes it personally when I don't eat her clam chowder. "You used
to love it! What's the matter?") Anyway, my husband and I are trying to
make up our minds about which synagogue to attend.
Ironically, after having attended only Conservative congregations since
my conversion, I must have had an impact on my husband's religious views
since he is now leaning toward Conservative. I, on the other hand, am
for the first time in my life considering a Reform temple! The bottom
line is (and I hate admitting this) convenience. We live minutes from
the largest Reform temple in our area. Most of our friends are satisfied
members there and when I think of schlepping 20 minutes two times a week
for religious school, well, you get the scenario
As I told my husband, if we don't like it, we can always change. He
feels that it's harder to "trade up" to Conservative once you've
belonged to a Reform congregation. We've attended services at both, and
like both. What do you think?
Your question is shared by many, Jews by birth and Jews by choice.
Deciding to join one synagogue vs. another is driven by personal
preferences. From your letter I would say that at least five criteria
are important to you.
Two of them are what brought you to Judaism in the first place, a search
for spirituality and community. So I would start by saying to choose the
synagogue where you feel those needs are best met. Specifically, what do
you think of the services, the music, the rabbi and the congregation. Do
the clergy inspire or move you? Are people welcoming and warm? Are
people singing, participating etc? I'd also check out what adult classes
are offered and if people actually attend. Similarly, you should see
what kind of "kindness" committees they have...like food shelf projects,
helping the sick/elderly etc.
You also indicated that schooling for your children is a factor. Visit
the schools, meet the principals, observe some classes and talk with
other parents. What's the thrust of the school's curriculum? I am not
big on schools that just teach skills (like Hebrew reading and prayer or
Torah chanting.) More important in my view, is teaching kids Jewish
values: in other words “WHY” they should be Jewish, as opposed to just
Also, I need to be candid -- Religious and Hebrew schools are sadly
famous for their behavior problems. Are the kids learning or just
goofing around? Related to this, do the kids get to know their rabbi? Is
the rabbi good with kids?
You also cite convenience. This is a worthy consideration and you need
not apologize. Ideally, you will find a synagogue that you will use
often. Distance and time will impact your usage...and your kids too when
its time for youth group/plays etc. Hopefully, you will not be like a
person who told me after switching synagogues that the second synagogue
was closer to his home and he'd rather live closer to the synagogue he
was not attending.
Finally, what about theology and movements? I have waited till now,
because I believe one can find the things above in any of the movements.
Personally, I happily attend synagogues of all the four main movements
of Judaism (I am now adding Reconstructionist and Orthodox to this
There are things in each movement that I like and dislike. I do not buy
your husband's argument however about "trading up or down" from one
movement to another. I don't view any movement as "down." Each has a
different theology and I appreciate the merit in each of them. Here's a
website with some nice short explanations of the differences:
If you want of course, you can join more than one shul. In the final
analysis I would say, rather than making a decision based on what
movement a synagogue is affiliated with, chose a place where you and
your family can call home. Hope this helps you find that home.
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© Copyright Gil Mann
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