When Mark Firestone was searching for a shul to join, he didn't look for a shul that had a nursery school or Hebrew school attached. Nor did he fret about the services he'd be getting for his membership fee. Instead, he wanted a shul that was quiet.
"I wanted it to be very quiet, so you can hear yourself daven, and hopefully Hashem can hear it," said Firestone, a Pico-Robertson life insurance salesman who belongs to Aish HaTorah. "I have been to other shuls where you can barely hear the Torah reading, because people are talking so much. Aish has zero tolerance for people talking in shul."
For many Jews, the High Holidays is a time when they consider joining or renewing their synagogue memberships. However, what attracts them to synagogues, and what rabbis feel is important when choosing a synagogue, is not always the vast array of services that synagogues and temples provide.
Many members and rabbis feel that it is the intangibles -- the atmosphere in the shul or the feeling of community that really attracts people, not the Hebrew school, youth program or adult education that is offered.
"I ride a motorcycle to shul on Shabbos, but they don't tell me what to do," said Malibu lawyer Ron Stackler of his synagogue, Chabad of Malibu, which prides itself on its informality. "One of my dear friends reads the Wall Street Journal during services, and nobody tells him not to do that.
"But the shul is authentically Jewish in its observance," he said. "It doesn't compromise -- but it also doesn't browbeat anybody or nudge anybody to be all those things."
Rabbi Levi Cunin, Stackler's rabbi at Chabad of Malibu, said that what people should look for is a warm and friendly environment when choosing a shul.
"I don't run the shul in a very formal way for that reason," he said. "Before the Torah reading, we have discussions about the parsha that allows people to ask questions. Some of the questions may come across as offensive to people from religious backgrounds, but I think they are important questions."
Other rabbis concurred with Cunin that atmosphere is the key thing, but that people should choose synagogues that are most conducive to their spiritual growth. While many rabbis advise people to join congregations whose members have a level of observance similar to their own, they also admit that the rabbi leading the congregation can be a strong draw.
"It blows my mind when people say, 'I am comfortable where I'm at,'" said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, executive director of Aish L.A. "You don't go to a shul to say 'I am comfortable.'
"You go to a place that challenges you to grow," he continued. "And you have to relate to the rabbi. A rabbi should be getting the people to keep growing in their spiritual pursuits."
"People are looking for clergy on the bimah who they can relate to and trust," said Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who also counsels people on the importance of joining a synagogue in the introduction to Judaism classes he teaches at the University of Judaism.
"They are looking for a rabbi that they like to hear from," he said. "But they also want a group of people who have shared values, shared traditions and share the language of being Jewish -- people to celebrate life and lifecycles with. The place we do that is the temple."
More controversially, some rabbis feel that what should attract people to temples is not the temple's attitude to Jews, but rather, its attitude to non-Jews.
"It is important to consider whether the synagogue is welcoming of non-Jews into the Jewish community," said Rabbi Allen Maller of Temple Akiba in Culver City. "It's a very important issue.
"Some synagogues are indifferent to welcoming non-Jews," he noted. "There are many people in mixed marriages, and it is important to welcome them in and try to make them feel more Jewish, and, hopefully, they can become more Jewish."
According to Maller, his aggressive outreach to non-Jews has inspired many converts, including one who became a cantor.
But most agree that people should have a higher purpose in mind when joining a synagogue.
"People will often join a synagogue because of the rabbi, but will only stay if they find a place in the community," said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. "You want a synagogue that puts a priority on the things you care about, and whose leadership speaks about things that resonate in your soul, and that gives you the opportunity to grow as a Jew in the directions that you wish to grow.
"It's more than just a social group -- that you can find in a country club," he continued. "You come to a synagogue to find a sacred community."
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