OpinionJewish & Israeli Culture

Moving beyond the building

Rethinking the place-centric approach in Judaism

Inside the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Inside the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Steve Rosenberg
Steve Rosenberg
Steve Rosenberg is principal of the GSD Group and board chair of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He is the author of Make Bold Things Happen: Inspirational Stories From Sports, Business and Life.

In an era marked by profound shifts in human connection and spirituality, Judaism finds itself at a crossroads. Is our traditional emphasis on place, particularly the synagogue, still relevant today? It is long past time to ask if this emphasis is outdated and whether it’s time for a shift in focus towards community and engagement.

The Jewish faith has a rich history of sacred spaces. The synagogue has played a central if not the most important role in Jewish communal life for centuries. But the world today is vastly different from what it was when these traditions were established. Technological advances and globalization have transformed how we connect with each other and with our spirituality. As such, it’s essential to reevaluate our place-centric approach in order to ensure Judaism’s continued relevance.

One of the fundamental principles of Judaism is the concept of community or kehillah. Traditionally, the synagogue served as the physical hub of the Jewish community. Members gathered for prayer, study and social interaction. While it undoubtedly played a pivotal role in fostering Jewish identity and continuity, the evolving dynamics of the modern world call for a reassessment of the synagogue’s prominence.

Today, many Jews feel disconnected from their religious roots. The synagogue, with its formal rituals, rigid structures and membership dues is sometimes alienating. The younger generations often struggle to relate to the traditional synagogue experience, which can be perceived as exclusive and out of touch. This disconnect has led to a decline in synagogue attendance and engagement, especially among millennials and Generation Z.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift away from physical places of worship. Congregations around the world turned to virtual services and digital platforms to maintain a sense of community and connection during lockdowns. This forced us to consider the idea that physical spaces, while significant, are not the sole source of spiritual fulfillment and communal bonds. The virtual approach proved successful and many people have continued to employ it.

The synagogue-centered approach also raises questions about accessibility and inclusivity. Not all Jews have equal access to synagogues due to geographic constraints, physical disabilities, financial limitations or other issues. By prioritizing place, we risk excluding those who are unable to participate fully in traditional synagogue life.

To address these challenges and ensure the vibrancy of Jewish communal life, we must shift our focus from the building itself to the relationships and connections that make up the heart of our faith. Chabad has done this in amazing fashion. While not doing away with the synagogue building itself, Chabad seeks to ensure that our Jewish journey is about going back to our roots in order to understand the “place” the synagogue played in Jewish life. Although it was vital, it was not central. The Jewish home was the heartbeat of the community. Jewish life was not meant to be mere synagogue membership and experience. The synagogue was meant to inspire Jewish living and values outside it.

At Chabad, developing relationships and “doing Jewish joyfully” are far more important and relevant today. It holds that community and engagement should take precedence over the physical space. Sometimes that engagement could mean standing in line and buying challahs, going to events or study sessions, or simply being with other people.

In Jewish tradition, the concept of kehillah transcends the synagogue walls. It encompasses a community bound by shared values, history and commitment to one another. This concept can and should extend beyond the synagogue into our everyday lives, no matter to which specific denomination we belong.

Instead of the synagogue, we should place Jewish life at the center of our communities. This means fostering connections, celebrating Jewish traditions and promoting Jewish values in various settings—from homes and community centers to digital spaces. It means embracing the diversity of the Jewish community and creating inclusive environments where all Jews feel welcome. I encourage everyone to look to their local Chabad for that model of togetherness.

Engagement is key to this transformation. We must actively seek ways to engage with Judaism that resonate with the realities of modern life. This could involve innovative educational programs, cultural events, volunteer opportunities and local interfaith initiatives. By prioritizing engagement over mere attendance at synagogue services, we empower individuals to connect with their Jewish heritage on a personal and meaningful level.

The shift towards a more community-centric approach to Judaism is not without its challenges. It requires a willingness to adapt and evolve, to let go of certain traditions that may no longer serve their original purposes. It also requires community leaders to embrace change and explore new ways of fostering Jewish identity and continuity.

However, history has shown that Judaism is a religion with a remarkable capacity to adapt and survive. From the Diaspora to the Holocaust, Jews have faced immense challenges, but have preserved their faith and culture through resilience and innovation.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur serve as a poignant reminder of the importance of reflection and renewal in Jewish life. They call on us to examine our deeds, seek forgiveness and commit to positive change. In a similar vein, it’s time for the Jewish community to reflect on the role of place in our faith and renew our commitment to building a more inclusive, engaged and dynamic Jewish community.

Synagogues will always have a place in Jewish life, but they should not be the sole focus of Jewish engagement. Instead, let us embrace a Judaism that thrives in the spaces where we live, work and connect with one another. Let us prioritize the values, traditions and relationships that define us as a community. By doing so, we can all do Jewish in the most joyful way possible.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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