Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shul Shopping

I have become a perennial shul shopper; blame it on being young and mobile. This will be the fourth year in a row that I am spending the High Holidays at a new synagogue. Looking for a shul right before the High Holidays is probably the worst time to look for one - attendance is higher than it will be for the rest of the year, the rabbi is usually busy preparing for the holidays and won't have much time to discuss the synagogue with you, and you feel rushed to join a place in time to get tickets for Rosh Hashanah. My husband and I have moved every July for the past four years, meaning we have had just 2-3 months to figure out our temple options, visit, and narrow down the list, before committing to a place for the year. Based on our previous synagogue experiences, this is what I was looking for in our most recent venture:
  1. A Traditional Egalitarian service. For me, this means mixed seating, the majority of women wearing kippot and tallit, and women on the bimah either as clergy or for an aliyah
  2. Potential to make friends. Am I the youngest one there by 20-30 years? Are there other young couples without kids? Who are the regulars? Are the members inviting or clique-y? 
  3. Torah study. I want a group that meets once a week, though I'll take what I can get. The format should be discussion-based and thought-provoking and cover a wide range of issues and biblical theories. I don't want to study with a group of people who will only treat the Torah as a 100% recounting of actual people and events any more than I want to study with people who are only interested in the proven historical (archaeological) record. Historical analysis can have its benefits, but the Torah is a religious text and should be treated as such. 
  4. An intellectual rabbi who leads by example. I want a rabbi who makes it easy to follow the service without treating the congregation like we're completely clueless. I want a rabbi who gives interesting d'varim on the portion and covers a diversity of topics over the course of the year. Listening to a d'var about the State of Israel week after week, for example, gets boring pretty fast. 
  5. A cantor or song leader I can sing along with. A cantor can have a wonderful voice, but if they are all over the place with the melodies so that no one can sing along, then it's not for me. 
  6. Location, location, location. Preferably, I'd like something within 20 minute walking distance or 15 minute driving distance of my home. I belonged to a synagogue a 30 minute drive away for a year and an hour commute both ways at least once a week for services is just too much. 
  7. Spiritual surroundings. I am not looking for a beautiful sanctuary. Architecturally and stylistically, I don't care what it looks like. Whatever it looks like, it should maximize the sense of God's presence and minimize distractions. Anything about the surroundings that will detract from my spiritual connection with God (creaky seats, really low lighting, etc) is a negative in my book. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker in my synagogue search, but certainly something to consider. 
This list will continue to grow as our experiences and needs grow, but it has served as a good starting point in our search this year. What do you look for in a synagogue or other house of worship?

L'shana tova! Happy New Year!