Why We Need Synagogue

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book sitting inside a synagogue
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By Rabbi Gregory Marx

Parshat Yitro

We learn in Exodus 19 that Moses went up to God, and God called to him from the mountain, saying, “This is what you shall say to the House of Jacob, and tell to the Children of Israel.” God calls Moses and tells him to rally the people behind the covenant. And just a few lines later, God proclaims the Ten Commandments and links the Jewish people to the performance of mitzvot, designed to repair the world and refine the soul.

These are some of the most dramatic words in the Torah.

I sometimes think that Moses proclaimed truth that the people of Israel needed to hear. So what would I tell the community today? What is one of our greatest spiritual challenges today?

Certainly there are political, environmental and ethical obstacles to be overcome, but Jewishly there is one overriding concern that I hear expressed by rabbis over and over again. We all would like to say something akin to, “Please support and belong to the Jewish community.” Please don’t just hire a private rabbi to officiate at your child’s bar/bat mitzvah, funeral or wedding. Please understand the importance and value your role plays in the community and the support and relationships that are only found in synagogues.

Consider the following. First, cost should not push you away. Every synagogue has reduced rates for those who need them. Having said that, I know that it’s expensive to belong. But we all make choices based on our priorities. If we cannot afford both a new car and a trip overseas, then we have to decide which means more.

And if we cannot afford the synagogue and something else, what we are really saying is that the synagogue is not a priority; that the other thing, whatever it is, is more important. Everyone has the right to set his/her own priorities. But we must all acknowledge/admit that this is what we are doing. Belonging and supporting a Jewish community must be of importance in today’s world.

Second, synagogues teach values that make mensches. Everyone wants their children to be successful, but what most of us value even more than monetary success, is strong moral character. We teach the importance of ethical goodness every day at shul. At our synagogue, and I’m sure in others as well, we house the homeless, collect food for the hungry, collect clothing for immigrants, support social justice causes, comfort the sick and march for justice.

Our children need places where they can learn about the necessity of moral character. We want our children to marry moral people. We want to work with moral people. We need character in public life.

Where else can we find these teachings if not in the synagogue? You teach your children by the choices that you make and, if you rent a rabbi like a commodity, then we are losing a golden opportunity to instill moral values that are essential for true success and happiness.
Third, there are many vital Jewish organizations in the world. Of that there is no doubt.

Most are dedicated to saving Jews. When a Jew is in crisis, it’s good to know that there are organizations that can bring relief. But know this: Only the synagogue makes Jews. Others save Jews. But the synagogue makes Jews. If we fail, then there will be no one left to save. I ask you to join us because the synagogue is the one essential historic institution dedicated to teaching us how to be Jews.

When we open a prayer book, the generations that went before us come alive. We open the prayer book and say the same words that they said, and we know that we belong to the ages, and that the ages belong to us; that we are not here today and gone tomorrow, but that we are part of our people’s history, and that history is part of us.

If I were on a mountain top and could speak to the entire Jewish community, I would call you home to the synagogue, as Moses called the people to God’s covenant. For those who have drifted away, come back because it will connect you to the roots from which you come, because it will connect you to a community that cares, because it will teach your children about the importance of goodness, because it will connect you to a heritage that contains some wise insights into how to lead a moral life and, above all else, because we need you, and to be needed is such an important part of every person’s life.

Be a part of the most historic Jewish institution ever devised. Be a part of rebuilding this vital Jewish association and, in the process, be strengthened yourself.

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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