How Can We Be True Houses of Gathering?

By Rabbi Ben Greenberg and Andi Rosenthal

The hallways are vacuumed and the seats are cleaned. Every nook and cranny is dusted. The cantor is rehearsing day and night, and the rabbi is writing for hours on end. We’ve just about reached the time of year when our sanctuaries are brimming with people, and our synagogue hallways bustle with activity. The High Holiday season brings with it an annual ritual of re-engagement with – and if we are fortunate, recommitment to – our houses of worship. Some people join joyfully, because of the sense of fulfillment and community a synagogue brings to them. And some people join reluctantly, out of a sense of obligation. No matter the reason, many people will soon re-enter the sacred spaces of our communities.

What kind of space will they find? Yes, our synagogues will be freshly vacuumed and dust-free, but more importantly, will they be models of community-building and communal living?

SYNERGY believes that synagogues serve as the nexus of Jewish communal life. Synagogues can represent intentional living. Synagogues can lead the way in cultivating lives of purpose and meaning. Synagogues have been at the vanguard of Jewish thriving for two millennia, and what our community needs now more than ever are reinvigorated and thriving synagogues. We need them not merely for the sake of the institutions themselves, but to serve, in a meaningful, purposeful, and joyful way, the people who inhabit them.

We face so much polarization right now both within the Jewish community and without. There are tension points in almost every conversation topic, and it’s becoming almost impossible to find spaces of civility and mutuality. Where can we turn to rediscover the ability to hold multiple opinions in respect? What space exists to be a center of community conversation, where we value one another and our differing perspectives? This space can be our synagogues, and this High Holiday season can be the time that we model this way of living our Jewish values.

It is very telling that in Hebrew a synagogue is called a beit knesset, a house of gathering. We envision our synagogues as primarily houses of worship or, perhaps, houses of study. However, first and foremost, our synagogues are houses of gathering. They are places where people come to share in each other’s good times and not-so-good times. They are places where we come together for solace and inspiration. Can they also be places that can hold the diversity of opinions people bring with them on the issues that have come to divide and polarize us?

Jewish tradition offers the following powerful teaching: “All the words were given to us by one Shepherd, one God created them, one Provider gave them, the Sovereign of all deeds, blessed be God, has spoken them. So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel … ” (Tosefta, Tractate Sota 7:12). Can our synagogues model this calling and create a space – a heart – of many rooms?

A thriving synagogue is a connected synagogue. It is a place that cultivates a culture where all people matter. It is a home for the development of purposeful relationships with each other as members of the Jewish community and as human beings created in the image of the divine. During this season of interpersonal and communal growth and reflection, of a time of moving forward, SYNERGY poses the following question and call to the synagogues of New York and beyond: Can we become centers of communal discourse that build the container for multiple opinions and perspectives? Can we seek to create the scaffolding that unites, not divides; that builds, not destroys; and that plants, not reaps?

This High Holidays, as we usher in the Hebrew year of 5776, let us also usher in a reclamation of the Hebrew understanding of the definition of synagogue, to be a beit knesset, a true, genuine, and generous house of gathering.

L’Shanah tovah u’metukah.
May you have a sweet and joyous New Year.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is SYNERGY’s Manhattan planning executive and Andi Rosenthal is SYNERGY’s senior planning executive for Westchester and Riverdale at UJA-Federation of New York.