Jewish Journal


July 28, 2010

Shul Shopping


It’s that time of year again: When many Jews realize they need to find a synagogue — and fast.

As the High Holy Days approach, synagogues host open houses, hold innovative Shabbat services and run ads hoping to attract prospective members.

But what really matters most when you’re selecting a shul?

“It’s like a marriage. You want to find your spiritual home,” says Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, who stresses that finding a connection with the people at a synagogue is one of the most important things to consider.

“Every place is going to have someone who is warm and welcoming when you first walk in,” she says. “But do you feel that the clergy are approachable? Are there people who will talk to you during the oneg? Are there people who are friendly, other than the membership committee? You don’t want to join and then find there is no one to connect with.”

At Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, Executive Director Jessica Green agrees: “When looking for a synagogue, go to a service and see how things are when you are a stranger in the room. Are the people friendly? Do they have smiles on their faces? Do they make an effort to welcome the new person in the room?”

Green suggests attending a synagogue-sponsored event or service in addition to an open house, and making an appointment to meet the rabbi. “Look to see if the personality and style of the rabbi is what you are looking for. Many people join a synagogue for a relationship with a rabbi,” she says.

When it comes to selecting a synagogue, many people fall into the habit trap. If you grew up attending a Conservative shul, chances are you’ll gravitate to a Conservative shul. The trick these days, both Green and Hochberg-Miller say, is to be open-minded when shul shopping.

Today, the line between levels of observance may be a bit more blurred than in years past. Interfaith families, who at one time may have felt unwelcome at a Conservative shul, are finding new programs and services that reach out to them. And some people who grew up in a Conservative environment may find that a particular Reform congregation meets their needs.

Finances come into play at this time of year, as well. Many synagogues find their cash flow lacking before the big membership pushes of late summer, while many potential members are trying to decide if a temple membership is worth the money.

“People look at synagogues as service organizations: ‘What do I get?’ ‘How much is membership worth?’ ” Hochberg-Miller says, adding that it’s important to take perceived financial value out of the equation. “It’s not like a gym membership,” she says.

Instead, Hochberg-Miller says the financial commitment should be looked upon as helping to create and sustain your local Jewish community.

“There is nothing more affirming in your Jewish identity than [helping to] sustain a synagogue,” she says.

Before you visit synagogues, develop a checklist:

  • If you have young children, does the congregation offer a preschool?

  • If you are dating, do they have singles activities?

  • How many days a week would the children attend Hebrew school? Some temples offer two-day- or three-day-a-week programs.

  • If you are an interfaith family, is the non-Jewish spouse able to participate in temple life?

  • Does the synagogue feature a youth group affiliated with NCSY (Orthodox), USY (Conservative ) or NFTY (Reform)?

Once you have your list, start calling temples in your area and make appointments to visit. Better yet, drop by a Shabbat service and see first-hand how the congregants interact and how the services flow. Check out a couple of temples and decide which one fits your family best.

Still not ready to commit? Some synagogues allow you to apply the cost of High Holy Days tickets to the price of membership if you decide to join later.

Find your connection: “L’Dor V’Dor,” Hochberg-Miller says. “You want a synagogue where you and your family can stay for life.”

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