If you belong to synagogue or if you don’t there are so many unwritten rules of the road. I thought I would take a moment to help you navigate being part of a synagogue community. Synagogues or Jewish temples are sometimes referred to by the Yiddish term–Shul which in the German means School. And every synagogue, temple or shul is unique. Ok, they share some things in common. The have some kind of holy ark-where a Torah scroll or scrolls is kept. They likely have prayer books known also as a siddur (unless it is for the High Holy Days then it is called a machzor). Most temples or synagogues have classrooms for learning for adults and children. Some will have special programs for early childhood or nursery school but not all. Many congregations will have a rabbi. Some both a rabbi and a cantor. Large congregation will have multiple rabbis and cantors. But there are some communities that can’t support even one clergy person. And that is one of the things that makes Judaism unique. Lay people can lead worship and teach. Unlike the Catholic Church where only priests can perform the sacraments. There is nothing in Judaism that a non-ordained Jew cannot do!
Most congregations finance themselves with a combination of dues, fees, voluntary offerings and fundraising. Some congregations are now experimenting by getting rid of the dues model and going to a completely voluntary offering. But in either case support for the institutions requires generosity of resources.
In congregations where dues are still the main financial support for the congregation there is either a set fee to be become a member or a percentage of income often at 2 or 2.5 percent. Membership in the synagogue is something to be proud of. It goes beyond money. Membership is a foundation of Jewish life-supporting the ongoing engagement of Jews with Judaism. Membership in a synagogue enables the Jewish people to thrive through engagement with learning, celebration, the arts, and most importantly one another. The synagogue is a place where Jews and their families can build relationships with each other! In an era when most people don’t even know their neighbors this is so important.
But now to the some of the unwritten rules of synagogue.
It is customary to put on a kippah or yarmulka when you come into the temple. Even if you might not normally wear one in your day to day-when you come into the synagogue most likely there is a stack of head coverings. This goes for both men and women. It is a sign of respect that in the holy place you cover your head.
It is customary that if you observed a yarzeit or the rabbi or cantor officiated at a lifecycle event for your family that you make an extra donation of charity to the synagogue. Judaism believes strongly in the power of tzedakah. When we recite the El Maleh Rachamim prayer at a funeral or memorial service the words of the prayer challenge us to give charity in memory of the deceased! So if you are observing the yarzeit of someone in your family, or you asked the rabbi to come help you hang the mezzuzah in your new condo, or she officiated at the baby naming of your grandchild make an extra donation to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, or Cantor’s music fund, or the campership fund in your congregation as a way of saying thank you.
If someone dies in the congregation or a parent of a congregant that you know dies, it is customary to make a small donation in their memory to the temple. The Synagogue will send a note to the family to let them know of your kindness in their loved one’s memory. You should also try to attend the funeral and shiva (The week-long memorial period at the home of a mourner). Helping to make the minyan (the prayer quorum) necessary for the mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer is a wonderful show of support and caring for a fellow congregant! You don’t have to be close to the deceased or to the mourner. This is what temple members do for one another.
Also when someone is ill. Many congregations will create a meal train. Helping bring meals to those at home after a surgery or with a lengthy recovery period. Even if you don’t know the person you have a bond already. You are part of the same synagogue community. This is how we help each other in times of sorrow or difficulty.
And in times of joy as well. Show up at the B’nai Mitzvah services. They are not meant to be private affairs. It is a coming of age of the young person in the context of the Jewish community and specifically the synagogue community. In a congregation everyone should rejoice in the youth of a synagogue. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah child is the next generation and when we celebrate that as a temple community we go a long way to help sustain the Jewish people! You don’t have to know the parents or grandparents or the child. But you share a bond together with that family. All are part of the Temple community!
Being a part of synagogue community can be enriching and rewarding through the relationships that are built. It is a place like no other. It is sacred place of sacred learning and sacred relationships. And it is so necessary in these cruel and rough times to have a place that helps to elevate our souls. That is what the synagogue can do. But it takes us being there to help bring about that sanctity and spirit. I hope you will add yours
There are a lot more unwritten rules–stay tuned here for more.