As we re-imagine the synagogue’s place in American Jewish life new ideas and old ideas meld together to create interesting opportunities. The synagogue remains an important hub of Jewish community. However, relationships have moved to the forefront in our understanding as a way of creating communities that reach out to those on the outside and nurture those already within its arms. The implications of a relationship model affect all aspects of synagogue life including the size of the synagogue.
Traditional wisdom indicates that smaller tends to be better. A lesser number makes it easier for people, including the rabbi to know one another and hopefully foster deeper relationships within the group. Smaller is therefore also consistent with our increased emphasis on individuality. Today it is preferable to find a smaller group that shares our beliefs, rather than subsuming our own ideas to the larger and more expansive congregation of times past. When money flowed more freely and joining the synagogue was part of the natural order of things, new congregations were formed, new buildings were built, congregations grew and life was good.
In many ways, life remains good, but the traditional synagogue model is now being challenged. The drive towards individuality is stronger than ever but the need for community continues. People however, are not flocking to join in the numbers they once did. This challenge is in fact an opportunity for a new synagogue model to emerge where the ideas of small and large can join synergistically; We can create a large synagogue, which itself is an amalgam of smaller congregations or communities. Many successful synagogues already practice this concept. In each traditional area of synagogue life, multiple opportunities or access points exist both within and outside the “synagogue walls.” But the synagogue walls have been expanded to hold many ideas and defray the expenses associated with running an operation.
Traditional services are held parallel to alternative services. Opportunities to congregate and to learn can be expanded. Teachers can focus on the things they know well while the larger number of teacher increases the scope of offerings. There is also the added benefit of programs, including the teaching, being more easily accessible to a broader community. People in this environment are exposed to things they might not have previously considered. Schools likewise can be combined reaping the benefits of size. The community develops a richness and vibrancy because of the depth and breadth of opportunities to engage Jewishly that historically was limited to only the largest or most well heeled congregations. This is being done with success around the country. So if it is already done, what else is there to do?
The challenge is for existing congregations to see this as an opportunity to remain vibrant rather than as a threat to their existence. Smaller congregations struggle to meet the budget and support the overhead. Maintaining a physical structure becomes a monumental challenge in its own right, often leaving little time for much else. The congregational leaders become so busy with the operations of the place they have little time left to build the sacred relationships within its walls. Joining together creates efficiencies of size in addition to diversity of programming available to a larger community. A larger physical structure yields space for multiple groups to share. But there are also the opportunities that arise when the smaller groups join together.
The large synagogue creates a critical mass, a Klal Yisrael. Such unity within a community becomes a cohesive power, while the individual voice and intimate relationships are preserved and honored. There will be times when everyone will want to gather together. Then the temporary walls that might separate the smaller sanctuary spaces can be opened up, literally and figuratively speaking, creating a larger space in which everyone can join.
There are distinct and real challenges to putting such a synagogue model in place, but the opportunity to create communities of meaning that thrive is too great to overlook, and the existing pressure many congregations feel cannot be ignored. Besides, in many places it seems to work.