Is it Just a Building or a Center of Jewish Life?

Have you ever gone into your synagogue in the middle of the day on a weekday?

It seems that most of the synagogue meetings I am asked to attend that are during the day are often at a local breakfast spot or at someone’s home that is convenient to the train stop. I haven’t been at my synagogue during typical business hours for some time. Recently, I attended a funeral of an older woman with whom I had served on a committee. Martha always reminded me of growing up in Boston with her Boston accent and New England sensibility about what is right.

I was amazed at the activity at synagogue on this Friday at noontime. There is a very vibrant early childhood program. And with Martha’s funeral and Shabbat preparations, there was a hubbub of activity on this day.

The sights and sounds of happy children outside of the sanctuary symbolized a great success for Martha, and others involved in the synagogue’s leadership. What a wonderful celebration of her life, with the backdrop of the next generation celebrating Shabbat and enjoying life.

So this past Tuesday evening, I attended a meeting at synagogue. Six cars were in the parking lot of those in attendance. We were meeting in what had been the gift shop and was now the coffee gathering place-the smallest meeting space in the synagogue. The only voices we heard were our own. I started to wonder what our synagogue might do to make the evenings as much of a center for Jewish activity and learning as what I had experienced a few days before.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, a consultant to synagogues, wrote a comment on that got me thinking about building use. Are synagogues better off owning their space? If they do own it, how can they maximize the use of their building to make it a true center of Jewish life and learning?

I have heard from the leadership of many synagogues that one of the biggest challenges they have is their facility. Demographics have changed. Maintaining the current membership level is a struggle. The sanctuary suited them well until about 5 years ago. Now those attending Shabbat evening services sit in the 3 rows in the front, and the room is pretty empty. Social halls that, years ago were where everyone had their B’nai Mitzvah and even wedding celebrations are seldom used. Let alone during a weekday.

Of course not every synagogue community can have or wants to have an early childhood program to use the space during the day. I have written before about renting out space during the day to schools. One synagogue I visited has a relationship with a neighboring university that rents out their Education center for their Lifelong Education program targeting retirees.

Is there other programming that the synagogue can sponsor to serve this population?

Rabbi Herring asks the question whether synagogues need to own their space, suggesting that the proceeds from the sale of the building could significantly alter our approach to dues. I am not sure about this.

We need to think about programming that will engage congregants.  Wherever it is.

Having such programming at a central address like the synagogue is not a bad thing. If it is not at the synagogue, it will have to be at another facility in the community or at someone’s home. And someone will have to make such arrangements.

What do you think about the use of the space at your synagogue?

2 Comments on “Is it Just a Building or a Center of Jewish Life?

  1. David, I read this literally minutes after reading the article in RJ MAgazine on facility sharing etc. and I am fortified in believing that we need to concentrate not on real estate but on real-ationships, so that institutions can share facilities and costs. The issue is not ownership, but the ability to control program, and, too often forgotten, to move program when a venue ceases to be viable. I was recently at a program at one of the Chicago area’s most venerable congregations, now operating in probably its sixth location, or seventh depending on how you count. Think about the people left behind and adrift,who could have been served in some manner without our edifice complexes — not to mention the costs for construction, relocation, and marketing when the realities of the Wandering Jew syndrome create new locales and structures.

    The name of today’s game has to be fluidity, not rigidity.

    • Hi Larry,

      Thank you for your comments. Very thoughtful as always. There is an an article and interview this week with Ron Wolfson in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal- on Relational Judaism. He has a book coming out on the same topic. Very timely.

      I hope you are well.



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