What’s Lost When a Shul is Shuttered?


Why do we go to shul?

Do we attend synagogue services to hang out with our friends? For the rabbi’s sermon? For a good d’var-Torah (Torah study-session)? For the kiddush? For a class or lecture? For the sense of community offered by the shul or minyan?

Or do we go to shul (dare I ask?) for the davening — the communal prayer? Perhaps even for a spiritual experience?

These questions have been tickling the back of my brain since two  Fridays ago, when all of the synagogues on the Upper West Side (and throughout the city) closed their doors in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

So what’s the problem? Is it only that I don’t have a place to daven?

It’s much more.

As Shabbat approached, my mood darkened, and over Shabbat and afterwards I experienced some kind of withdrawal symptoms: I’m not especially happy with most synagogues, yet I craved shul.

I ought to acknowledge right off that as one who grew up in what was then Modern Orthodoxy — American Jewish traditionalism of the 1950s and ’60s (sadly weak and beleaguered today) — I have an ambivalent relationship with synagogues. I am entirely comfortable in most denominational prayer communities: Sectarian Orthodox “Yeshivish,” Reform, chasidic, Partnership, Modern and Centrist Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Mea Shearim “Perushim,” Chabad and Conservative, too.

But increasingly I am with German-Jewish educator Ernst Simon, leading Talmudist Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni and those who say, “Those with whom I daven I can’t talk to, and those I can talk to I can’t daven with.” We “reverse Marranos” don’t have many places where we feel truly comfortable, truly satisfied.

Which leaves me, where? What is causing my dark mood — that I have no place to go on Shabbos? Is it that I miss a place to hang out with other churchgoers, even as “those with whom I daven I can’t talk to”? Is it something else, something deeper?

Why do people go to shul?

Most people I’ve engaged on this question say, “It’s community.” For historian Adam Mintz, rabbi of the Modern
Orthodox Kehillat Rayim Ahuvim on the Upper West Side, “The social element is huge. …  In a time of crisis people want community, to feel connected — and that’s what’s missing now.”

A regular worshiper at the “Yeshivish” West Side Kollel noted, “The social environment is important — but only as it enhances kavanah [the devotional core of the prayer for the worshipper]. Yes, I appreciate a good kiddush and a good d’var Torah [a learned discourse], but I go to shul to daven. Period.”

For biochemist Milton Adesnik, who is largely Conservative, going to shul “makes me feel part of a community. It’s not the davening.”

Another scientist, Dr Michael Sperling, who is a churchgoer at the vibrant Orthodox Nitzanim synagogue in Jerusalem, starts with community, but in the same breath suggests, “We honor God by many people praising Him at the same time in the same place.”

For Eleanor Radzivilover, a long-time adherent of B’nai Jeshurun, a progressive synagogue with Conservative roots on the Upper West Side, shul is multi-valanced. It’s about community (“People are there for you”); spirituality (“and I don’t necessarily mean the prayer”); aesthetics (“the music!”); and the intellectual component (“Our clergy tap into our heads, not only our hearts”).

And then there is Hank Sheinkopf, the canny political analyst, who identifies with Modern Orthodoxy. No shul? “I have a sense of loss — the loss of the sense of hearing your words together with those of others. Communal prayer — the shul — is the reification of our historical dynamic; it’s with us, for us, in times of plenty and in times of trouble. The Jewish life-cycle takes place in the shul.”

The dilemma of Jewish communal prayer is perhaps best articulated by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, an architect of the Havura movement and most recently the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the flagship of the Reconstructionist movement. “The idea of sitting with others,” he says, “hearing other voices — even in the silent portions, the ‘Amidah,’ of the service — is a transcendent experience.” Services that are streamed online? “Prayer is challenging; streaming is passive.”

Strassfeld notes that for the Orthodox, going to shul is “chiyuv” — at some level a religious obligation — to pray communally. For others, it’s more passive. “It’s the Jewish thing to do, akin to Christians going to church on Sunday,” he says. But Strassfeld does not diminish the importance of shul-as-community. To him, it’s sociological: the shul has replaced the ethnic neighborhood. “It’s where we live.”

Where does all of this leave me? I go to shul primarily to daven, and I miss the davening. I miss as well the intellectual component — the superb weekly Talmud class I attend on Shabbat afternoon in New York. I miss the music of Jerusalem’s Yakar congregation. I miss the devotions of my beit medrash in Jerusalem’s Batei Ungarn-Mea Shearim. And yes, I miss the davening in the company of others — the deep feeling of community.

It’s basic. My son Adam, an author, activist and student in Israel, reminds us of the ancient tradition that “every time you pray in a minyan, the Shechinah [the Divine presence] is with the community. The individual is enhanced. The community is enhanced.”

Perhaps that’s what I miss.

But I also miss taking a coffee with friends (or with a good spy novel) at my neighborhood coffeehouse.

Jerome Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author of four books and editor of the forthcoming “The Future of Judaism in America.”