Why Synagogues Matter

Is synagogue affiliation worth the demands on our time and resources? Isn’t it easier to be alone?

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Foreign diplomats and local dignitaries take part in a memorial service inside Ioannina’s Kahal Kadosh Yashan synagogue to mark 70 years since the Nazi deportations.
Foreign diplomats and local dignitaries take part in a memorial service inside Ioannina’s Kahal Kadosh Yashan synagogue to mark 70 years since the Nazi deportations.Credit: Gavin Rabinowitz, via JTA
Michael Knopf
Rabbi Michael Knopf

Passover, which began last Monday and continues until Monday night in Israel and Tuesday night in the Diaspora, is a holiday that invites questions. This year, a year in the shadow of the Pew study, which showed only 1/3 of American Jews belong to a synagogue, I have found myself dwelling on this question: Why do synagogues matter? Here is a thought toward a possible answer, by way of a personal anecdote.

Last week, I was touched by the deaths of two 92-year-olds. The first was a friend’s great aunt. The second was a congregant of mine named Ralph. By all accounts, my friend’s great aunt was a lovely and kind woman who, during the course of her long life, raised a loving family and had many friends. Ralph, too, could easily be described in much the same way. Both died in relatively similar ways, experiencing steep physical decline in their later years while remaining mentally sharp. While all deaths are painful, neither person’s passing was sudden or surprising.

Despite these similarities, the funerals for these two individuals could not have been more different. The service for my friend’s great aunt was held in a chapel that was empty aside from a handful of surviving family members and the officiating minister (who had no relationship with the deceased or her family). As my friend put it, “The thing about living to 92 is that you outlive most of your friends. Who is left to attend the funeral?”

Perhaps he’s right. And yet, in addition to Ralph’s close friends and family, about 500 people, of various ages and walks of life, packed my synagogue’s cavernous sanctuary for his service. Why was Ralph’s funeral so different?

Of course, in many ways, it is impossible to answer the question. There are too many variables to highlight an exact reason. But it seems to me that at least one reason is this: Ralph prioritized belonging. He was a dedicated and loving husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend, but he also saw beyond the immediate spheres of self, family, and friends to the larger ones of community, Jewish people, country, and world. Nowhere was this expansive vision more apparent than in his relationship to his synagogue community.

To call Ralph an active and involved congregant would be an understatement. Ralph was a past-president of my synagogue. Before and after serving in that capacity, Ralph volunteered in nearly every aspect of congregational life and governance. He made himself a dear friend to me and so many others within my community. He loved people indiscriminately and was unafraid to show it. He saw it as part of his communal responsibility to forge deep and lasting friendships with virtually anyone who walked through our synagogue’s doors. Finally, and most importantly, he was a dedicated participant in our daily minyan. Ralph made it his business to ensure that as many people as possible could enjoy the blessings of sacred community.

The benefit was mutual. As Rudyard Kipling put it in "The Jungle Book", “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, but the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Synagogue involvement gave Ralph much strength. The synagogue was the nexus of his social circle, for one. For another, Ralph was a man of faith who believed that his daily prayers were conversations with a God who was a close personal friend. The synagogue, then, was the place that enabled him to catch up with his old buddy. Perhaps most importantly, the synagogue was a community that joined him to celebrate, and thereby enhance, his joys. The community held him and his family in times of need and helped him wrestle with life’s deepest questions. Ralph knew that ultimately one gets from a community what one puts into it.

Ralph’s well-attended funeral represented both aspects of that mutuality. Everyone in attendance was there because of the strength Ralph gave them by virtue of his involvement. Their presence reflected a desire to repay selfless acts of kindness with selfless acts of kindness and to affirm a profound loss to the whole, to the community. Simultaneously, the presence of so many affirmed the strength that Ralph received from that community in his lifetime. In death, as in life, the group was a force for comfort and healing for him and his family.

My friend’s great aunt, on the other hand, was not actively involved in her church. She was doubtlessly a wonderful woman, but her reach did not extend past her immediate circle of family and friends. Perhaps, then, that was why her funeral looked so different.

And that is ultimately my point. It’s not that there is something so praiseworthy about having a well-attended funeral. Lots of deserving people have sparsely attended memorials, and I am sure plenty of jerks pack the chapels. But in this case, the difference between the great aunt’s funeral and Ralph’s is the difference between non-affiliation and affiliation, between non-involvement and passionate commitment. For Jews, does affiliation with and involvement in a synagogue matter? Is it worth the committee meetings, the fundraising solicitations, the demands on our time and resources? Isn’t it easier to be alone? I suppose it depends on what you want your funeral to look like.

Recall the Passover story. Redemption only happened when each individual Israelite, and every Jewish family, joined together as a community to march out of Egypt. Belonging to and becoming involved in a synagogue community in our era means never, even to the very end, having to march alone.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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