July 10, 2024
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Are Our Synagogues Fulfilling Their Purpose?

Rebecca was raised in a Reform Jewish family from Long Island, where she and her family belonged to a synagogue, attending services each year on the High Holidays. Like so many other young Jews in America, Rebecca’s initial association with synagogue was not positive. After college she moved to Manhattan, and a friend brought her to MJE (Manhattan Jewish Experience). When she entered The Jewish Center building where MJE is based and learned that the edifice she had entered was an Orthodox synagogue, she immediately turned around and headed for the door. Her friend literally blocked her exit, encouraging her to remain and give it a try. Rebecca hesitantly agreed to come up to MJE, and then something clicked. She came back the next week and then the next. Rebecca began coming to our classes; she attended our Spring Retreat and traveled with us to Israel for the first time.

Over the next two years Rebecca became religiously observant. She met a young man, an active member of The Jewish Center, and I was privileged to officiate at the wedding. Today Rebecca lives with her husband and four children, again on Long Island—this time in a religiously observant community. She sends her kids to a yeshiva day school and in her words, “loves” being involved in her local synagogue.

For most young American Jews, synagogue carries negative associations. Boredom, irrelevance and even hypocrisy, are words my students generally use to describe their synagogue experience growing up. Some have had positive experiences, but they are usually the exception.

What is the function of our synagogues? What is this institution supposed to accomplish, and are our synagogues living up to their mission?

This week’s Parshat Trumah teaches the mission of the synagogue: Ve’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham: God tells the Jews, to create a Mikdash, a Tabernacle so He can dwell amongst us (Exodus 25:8). Fast forward to the times of the prophets. After hearing God speak of the eventual exile of the Jewish people, the prophet Yechezkel calls out to God and says: “Lord, God are you bringing an end to the people of Israel?” to which God responds: “Although I have distanced you among the nations, and I have scattered you among the different lands … I will be a miniature sanctuary (Mishkan) in the lands where they have come” (Ezekial 11:16). The Talmud interprets this verse: “These are the synagogues and study halls of Babylonia” (Megillah 29a).

The Mishkan was thus intended to live on within our synagogues and halls of study. But what was the purpose of the Mishkan and how was it meant to live on within our synagogues?

The Ramban (Nachmanides) wrote that the Mishkan was intended to be what he calls a a makum menuchat hashechinah—a place in which God’s presence would rest. The secret of the Tabernacle, namely the Shechinah, which was openly revealed at Sinai when the Torah was given, would continue to be found in the Mishkan, in a more concealed fashion. Mount Sinai was the first time the Jewish people heard God’s word, but it wouldn’t be the last. Each time Moshe would enter the Mishkan, he would hear God’s voice speak to him from between the keruvim, the two angelic forms sitting on the Ark of the Covenant. And so, it was through the Mishkan that the people could continue to hear God’s word and instruction. The Mishkan thus served as a continuation of the Sinai experience—a mobile Sinai unit. It encapsulated the Sinai experience by offering a perpetual revelation available to Moshe and the Jewish people throughout their travels in the wilderness.

But something else took place at Sinai. Sinai was not just a powerful man-to-God experience; it was also a bein adam l’chavero moment—a person-to-person encounter as well. Leading up to the Sinai Revelation, the Torah says: Vayachanu bamidbar—“and the Jews encamped in the wilderness,” vayichan sham yisrael neged hahar—“and he encamped there, next to the mountain” (Exodus 19:2).

The Torah is clearly speaking about the entire people, and so why is the language “and he encamped” written in the singular and not vachanu—“and they encamped”? Rashi famously answers, k’ish echad b’lev echad—“one person, one heart”—that when receiving the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people were unified, like one person with one heart. That is the other aspect of the Sinai experience: the achdus, the unity of one Jew to the next.

And so, if the Mishkan was to be a mini-Sinai experience, its purpose was not only to bring the people to God, but to also connect one Jew to the next.

Applying this model of the Mishkan to our own times when we are without a Tabernacle or Temple, when as Talmud tells us: elu batei knessiyot—that our synagogues today are meant to reflect the Mishkan of old, then both aspects of the Sinai experience must be present. Our synagogues must be both a makom menuchat hashchinah—a place where all Jews can have access to Torah and spirituality but also a place of k’ish echad b’lev aechad—where everyone feels a sense of achdut, a sense of unity and oneness.

To the degree that our synagogues possess both these Sinai elements, they will be powerful vehicles for spiritual growth and communal places of meeting. Some may have grown cynical of the crowds and “the scene” that form at the kiddushes (although many of us have missed that during COVID), but it is critical that such places exist, especially for young people of all backgrounds to meet. It is vital we offer an authentic and compelling Judaism, but we also need to offer a way into our community. Not everyone out there is a spiritual seeker, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to belong.

Rebecca’s initial encounter with synagogue was negative. But when she found a place that spoke to her, that resonated with her spiritually and that enabled her to meet her husband, Rebecca’s association with the synagogue dramatically improved. If our synagogues uplift us, if they give our young people a warm and inviting place to meet and feel connected, we will fulfill the very purpose of the synagogue—to be a mini-Sinai experience connecting us with God and to each other.


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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