September 22, 2022
By Rabbi Jonathan Leener for eJewishPhilanthropy
For many American Jews, the synagogue is totally irrelevant. As an institution, the synagogue is often viewed as being sterile and unwelcoming. Authenticity and inclusivity are not often associated with synagogue life. Membership decline and building closures are now commonplace. We could use COVID-19 as a new scapegoat, but the synagogue’s foundation has been eroding for decades. The synagogue needs more than a rebranding, it needs to do teshuva.
To be clear, I’m not referring to teshuva as the process of repentance or confessing any wrongdoing, but teshuva as an existential return to a former self. In short, synagogues need to reclaim its origins as a place of radical hospitality and openness. Its Hebrew name, Beit Knesset, a house of gathering, reinforces its central task. The Talmud (Megillah 28b) notes that synagogues in Babylonia were built with the stipulation that they not have the full sanctity of a synagogue, in order that it be permitted to use them for the community’s general needs. In other words, our ancestors were willing to sacrifice a level of decorum to meet the actual needs of the people. This should look dramatically different for each synagogue, but it all needs to be moving towards greater inclusivity.
I’ve always found it incredibly powerful that the homeless often sit outside churches. In fact, I have even become jealous because people associate the church as a place of healing, a place of compassion, a place that can hold suffering. This is the type of connection I dream for the synagogue. Synagogues need to embrace the messiness of life. Inspired by this vision, my synagogue recently started hosting a weekly Jewish 12 Step Meeting. For some, using a synagogue to host people discussing their addictions to alcohol, sex and drugs, would be sacrilegious. I see it as a way of maintaining the integrity and purpose of the synagogue. It signals to everyone, even those not attending the meetings that a synagogue can be a space that allows one to bring their full self. We don’t need to hide our suffering, our challenges.
The synagogue can be a resting place for brokenness. The very first model of a synagogue demonstrated this when Moses collected all the shards of the broken tablets and placed them in the Ark – where they rested next to the Torah itself. Instead of throwing away our regrets, covering up our wrong turns, or suppressing our pain — we carry it with us, and we even make it holy by making a tikkun, a repair.
As a way of expanding our boundaries, we also recently launched an LGBTQ iniative to create specific programming and community for LGBTQ people. In July we hosted a Shabbat dinner, where nearly a hundred people came. Many shared that it was their first time in a synagogue since they came out. It’s incumbent upon synagogue leadership to create safe spaces that allow LGBTQ Jews to nurture their uniqueness. Rabbis and synagogue leaders have a sacred responsibility to provide support to the most vulnerable members in a community. The moment for the synagogue to reclaim its notoriety of being a space that gathers all people is badly needed, specifically the most alienated and neglected amongst us.
As synagogues plan for a new year of programming and community building, now is the perfect time to reprioritize ways to better serve marginalized people. I specifically highlighted the addiction and LGBTQ community, but each synagogue should decide what they can best offer. It’s true that some of these events and gatherings will be smaller in attendance and could largely serve people who are not even members of the congregation but the values being expressed through these offerings will allow the synagogue to remain relevant and connected to its earliest origins as being a true place of gathering.
Rabbi Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn. He is a faculty fellow for Pardes North America.