Restoring Spirituality to Shul Life

by | in President's Message

Despite the dire predictions of half a century ago, Orthodox Jewry is today the fastest growing stream in Judaism. No doubt, we have much to be thankful for. And yet, in spite of our successes, there are many areas in which we, as a community, need to improve.

Throughout my travels to Jewish communities, both large and small, I oftentimes hear shul rabbis lament the lack of spirituality in their shuls. Since the OU is a synagogue-based organization, we are deeply concerned about every issue that affects synagogue life. Through our Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, we provide support and resources to hundreds of OU shuls throughout North America. Thus, we asked ourselves, how can we inspire our synagogues to become true mikdashei me’at? How can we help shul members make the time they spend in shul more meaningful and spiritually uplifting?

Many of our OU synagogues have various minyanim—the hashkamah minyan, the regular minyan, the young couples minyan, the nusach Ashkenaz minyan and the nusach Sefard minyan. I often hear complaints from shul lay leaders and rabbis about the dwindling minyan in the main sanctuary because of all of the “side minyanim.” But one surefire way to enhance the spirituality of the shul experience is to make certain that individuals feel comfortable and at home in their venue of tefillah. When it comes to minyanim, one size does not fit all. All of us are looking for individual paths to the Almighty. The more choices, the better.

Far too often, shul administrators dictate what they want without listening to what their members need. If my Shabbat is enhanced by an eight o’clock minyan followed by two hours of Torah learning, why not try to accommodate me? Shouldn’t a shul try to cater to the various needs of its members? Perhaps there should even be a special minyan to accommodate those who tend to arrive somewhat late on Shabbat morning. Were shuls to use a customized approach to tefillah, many of us would get more out of the shul experience.

What else can we do to enhance the spirituality of the synagogue experience? We at the OU are involved in many initiatives designed to enhance the spirituality of our shuls. We have, for instance, organized symposiums on “Making Our Tefillot More Meaningful and Personal” in numerous communities. The response to these events has been overwhelmingly positive, and we have plans to organize future such symposiums in new and exciting locations.

Engaging in kiruv is another excellent way to recharge one’s spiritual batteries. In our tefillot every day we ask God to give us the ability to learn, lilmod, and to teach, u’lelamed. Not all of us are teachers. Why do we ask God to give us the ability to teach? Because when one learns Torah, one is inspired to share its beautiful secrets.
There is perhaps no better way to strengthen one’s own connection to Torah than by teaching it to someone who is learning it for the first time. Teaching a newcomer to Judaism challenges you to rethink ideas and concepts you learned as a child. Invariably, you begin to see Yiddishkeit through the eyes of your student, viewing it with a fresh perspective and a newfound appreciation.

Many of you are familiar with an organization called Partners in Torah, which partners knowledgeable frum Jews with less informed Jews for the purpose of learning together—in person or on the phone—for an hour each week. This program, and others like it, enables both the beginner and the “already frum” partner to deepen their understanding and appreciation of our magnificent heritage. If we want to enhance the spirituality of the synagogue, we must turn our synagogues into outreach centers.

This past Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the OU, led a wonderfully effective outreach initiative at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey. Entitled the “I Wish I Understood Everything I Was Saying Service,” the minyan attracted Jews on all levels of observance. To help those new to the shul experience feel more comfortable, “greeters” were appointed to meet each beginner. Additionally, each beginner was seated next to a seasoned shul-goer. The service, which fostered a wonderful camaraderie among the participants, was received with much enthusiasm.

Engaging in kiruv is an excellent way to recharge one’s spiritual batteries.

In parashat Shelach, Moshe sends out spies to scout Eretz Yisrael, and tells them to report back on their mission. He asks them to observe the following: “Are [the inhabitants] many or are there few; are they strong or are they weak?” Rashi gives us an incredible insight into Moshe’s message, informing us that if the inhabitants have open fields, that’s a sign that they are strong, and if they live in fortified cities, that’s a sign that they’re weak. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that one would think the reverse is true—open fields are indicative of a weak population and fortified cities are indicative of a strong population. But the Torah is, in fact, teaching us that by being open you exhibit tremendous strength. If we open up our synagogues and our communities to our non-religious brethren, it will only make us stronger, not weaker.

It is also important for large communities to realize they could learn much from smaller ones. Shuls in large metropolitan areas should, for example, try to replicate the cohesiveness and spirituality often found in shuls in smaller Jewish communities. When one lives in a place where frum life is not taken for granted and where one must play an active role in order for it to flourish, he feels a greater sense of pride in the shul, and in the community and all its accomplishments. All shuls should strive to instill this sense of pride and feeling of communal responsibility among their congregants.

Over the last few years, the OU has invited smaller Jewish communities from across North America to participate in a communities’ fair in New York in the hope of encouraging young Orthodox families to relocate. These fairs have been remarkably successful. However, we will have achieved true success only when a delegation of shul officers and directors visits these smaller communities in order to learn from their successes.

A final suggestion: in order to heighten the spirituality of our shuls, we must heighten the spirituality of Shabbat. In parashat Vayeshev, after Yosef tells his brothers and his father about his dreams foretelling his royal future, the Torah tells us, “Vayikanu bo echav, v’aviv shamar et hadavar,” “So his brothers envied him, but his father awaited the matter.” Rashi explains that the word shamar in this context means “await.” While Yosef’s brothers were wary of the dreams, Yaakov was quietly anticipating their fulfillment. Similarly, to be shomer Shabbat doesn’t simply mean to keep Shabbat, it means to anticipate and to eagerly await the arrival of Shabbat, week after week. In other words, we must make Shabbat the spiritual centerpiece of the week.

Shabbat is a day spent away from the daily grind, a day dedicated to prayer, learning Torah and pursuing kedushah. What better way to tap into the transcendence of Shabbat than by delving into the parashah or the haftarah or by taking a class in Kuzari or Mesillat Yesharim? Imagine if every shul were to offer a myriad of Torah classes and shiurim on Shabbat, on all levels, so that every member could fulfill his or her learning needs. Wouldn’t this go a long way in helping transform our shuls into true mikdashei me’at?

It is my hope and prayer that we succeed in infusing greater spirituality into synagogue life and, by doing so, bring all of Klal Yisrael closer to being true ovdei Hashem.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2010.

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