In Defense of the Synagogue

August 10, 2022 | David Wolpe and Yaffa Epstein
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This century has seen the proliferation of alternatives to the synagogue, mostly spearheaded by younger people eager for new and fresher modes of association. But to David Wolpe, himself a congregational rabbi, these ultimately can’t provide replacements for shuls:

While new models of communal life will arise, such as Moishe House (where Jewish young professionals live together and create programs for their peers) or retreat centers, the question remains: which model will be continuously available throughout the life of a Jew? What happens when you outgrow the organization or the time for the retreat ends? A synagogue is for all ages, at all times. No other institution in Jewish life has that comprehensive commitment.

If other institutions assume the roles of the synagogue, the entire financial model of synagogues becomes imperiled. Synagogues don’t charge people to attend services, except for High Holy Days. Over time we have seen High Holy Day services spring up for people who either go to Shabbat services at synagogues for free or who don’t go at all. So synagogues are increasingly unable to survive financially.

The problem is one of [what is known in Jewish civil law as] hasagat g’vul, transgressing someone else’s boundary. . . . One solution is to fund more partnerships. If other organizations wish to assume functions traditionally done by synagogues, let them do it in some sort of conjunction with local synagogues. This could be a win-win for both parties.

New organizations have their role to play, but the shul is the backbone of Judaism. Once the synagogues are gone, it will not be easy to bring them back.

With that being said, as Wolpe’s coauthor Yaffa Epstein points out, the Talmud does recognize the importance of healthy competition to maintaining quality—even in religious matters.

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