The synagogue is a place with many doors. People enter for a wide range of reasons: to learn, to socialize, to make a contribution to the community, to develop values in our children, to celebrate the seasons of life, to mourn losses of many kinds. However they enter, we welcome them into a caring community.
Some come to synagogue after a lifetime in Jewish community. They are steeped in Jewish culture and thought. Some come to synagogue with a vague memory of a Jewish upbringing — seder with the grandparents, cousins who went to Jewish summer camp, maybe a bar or (less likely) bat mitzvah.
Some come to synagogue with no previous connection to Judaism. Perhaps their parents, though Jewish, were entirely secular. Perhaps they are not Jewish but are married to a Jew. Perhaps the idea of this people, at once ancient and modern, calls to their soul.
No matter why or when someone walks through the doors of a synagogue, they are welcome.
I hadn’t had much to do with synagogue between the ages of 13 and 23. I was busy at school, and out exploring the world. One day, though, I decided to get busy exploring myself. Why was I born into this Jewish family? How shall I balance my Jewish and American selves? I wanted to know what it meant to lead an authentic Jewish life.
And, truth be told, I hoped to find a date.
Unsure of myself and tentative, I took myself to a synagogue one Friday evening. A kind man greeted me, gave me a prayer book, found a place to sit and calmed down a bit.
Surprisingly, I remembered the prayers and how to read Hebrew. I met friendly people. I rediscovered a life of the mind and of the heart. I met a dynamic, gracious rabbi. Since that day, I have never really left synagogue.
From ancient days, synagogues have been called Houses of Gathering, Houses of Study, and Houses of Prayer. Indeed, these three facets are central to our purpose.
We learn together, whether deepening our understanding of ancient Jewish wisdom, teaching children our culture, language, and values, or exploring practical topics such as good parenting.
We gather together to laugh and play, to celebrate the joyous experiences of life, to find solace when we taste the bitterness of life’s cup.
We pray together — through music, word, and silence — seeking to connect with the Source of the Universe, the force that binds people together and inspires deeper living. At synagogue, we train ourselves to become better people and to lead more vibrant lives.
Life these days is fast-paced and lonely. We are bombarded with images and information — so much so that none of it has an impact.
We sit in cars and cubicles, and rarely look each other in the face. We share the fabric of our lives with fewer and fewer people; even the nuclear family is disbanding. We are rarely seen for the people we are. We have become consumers first and foremost.
It’s not a healthy way to live. Human beings are hominids, and as such are social creatures. We’re not meant to lead isolated lives. We crave meaningful contact. We need each other. Sharing with other people enriches our lives and souls.
Synagogues, like other communities, are the tribe Jewish people and our families crave.
At synagogue, we know that we are not alone. At synagogue, we know that we matter to other people. At synagogue, we know we have something to offer others.
At synagogue, we live richer, more meaningful lives.
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.