Synagogues once Saved Judaism, Now They are Needed to Save Jews
By Moshe Daniel Levine
We all know the story of the multi-generational shift that Judaism underwent from the era of a centralized Temple to local Synagogues.
Starting with the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE Judaism had to adapt quickly in order to survive. With the first Temple destroyed, political autonomy lost, and Israel conquered – Judaism needed to evolve into a tradition that could be practiced anywhere.
Of course, the Babylonian exiled turned out to be just a test run. 70 years later the benevolent King Cyrus issued his famous edict allowing all exiles to return to their homelands. Jews returned and subsequently rebuilt a temple, but synagogues were here to stay. Many Jews didn’t even actually return to Israel – opting instead to remain in Babylonia or Egypt.
By the time the Second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, all of the pieces were in place for a successful reaction to exhilic displacement and dispersion. The synagogue and its partner the Beit Midrash (study house), became the center of the Jewish community and would even, generations later, be dubbed by the Talmud as miniature temples. The synagogue truly saved Judaism.
Today, however, it is desperately needed to save something else. Individual Jews.
It is no secret that there is an epidemic of loneliness of our contemporary society. According to one study by the medical group Cigna, nearly two-thirds of Americans reported being chronically lonely. And this was before the last six months of the pandemic and social distancing measures.
We need to be honest. Loneliness kills.
Community is most fundamentally a support network of people to help and care for each other during times of need. As fear continues to proliferate through the world due to the pandemic, economic hardships continue to be exacerbated by record levels of unemployment, and the political sphere seems perfectly tailored to breeding stress – we need each other more than ever. But, of course, can’t actually be with each other.
Sadly and unsurprisingly this situation is leading to a mental health epidemic and a massive increase in deaths by suicide.
One easy answer to this problem already exists in the Jewish community.
In the past couple of months Jewish institutions everywhere have been working overtime to move content to Zoom, produce high quality productions, and ensure that every member feels comforted and supported during this time. No Rabbi, Jewish professional, or lay-leader I have ever met signed up to operate completely online – yet the Jewish world has risen to the challenge.
And it’s clearly working and more important than ever.
A recent article by the Forward quotes an extensive survey delineating that individuals belonging to a religious community during this time feel significantly less lonely than their nonreligious counterparts. It’s important to note that this is irrespective of one even attending any sort of events – whether in-person or virtual. Rather, just the sheer act of being a part of a wider, mission-driven community – especially a community that exudes as much hope as the Jewish community – can have a positive effect on one’s well being.
Anecdotally I know this to be true as well. I see the appreciation that people have for online content and a chance to engage. I’ve noticed how a short social media message, text, or phone call from a community leader can brighten someone’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, in a time when people feel more alone than ever, acknowledging one’s deep connection to the global and historical Jewish tradition – a feeling that is constantly fostered by local Jewish institutions – has profound power.
Now is not the time to shy away from Jewish institutions but to embrace them. See what your local Synagogue, Hillel, Federation, or youth group has to offer. I can promise that they have been working hard to create the community that we are all desperately seeking right now. Make sure to support these institutions and their holy work – ensuring that they can weather the difficult financial storm sweeping across the community.
For the past 2000 years the Synagogue and other Jewish institutions were necessary to save Judaism. Now they are necessary to save Jews.
Moshe Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel and a Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah. You can read more of his writing on his website. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.