My Vote for the Traditional Shul

Rabbi Dan Shevitz
October 3, 2012
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I would like to cast my vote for the traditional shul.  It is a gallant institution which has survived upheavals in culture and politics and continues to reinvent itself and requires no apologies.

Here’s why I like shuls:

It is a place where you learn to get along with people you don’t like. This is true of shulgoers and even more of active volunteers.  A rancorous board meeting that begins or ends in prayer or study teaches us that even people who are so wrong that their stupidity borders on the criminal are also created in God’s image.

It is a place where we regularly discuss matters that are obvious.  The problem with obvious things is that they are rarely discussed critically.  The universality of ethics, the value of piety, the requirement of forbearance,  for examples, are regularly explored in sermons, projects, classes, and planning.  Where else can we gather as communities and talk about Chesed?

The effects are cumulative, not sudden. Going to shul once or twice does about as much as going to the gym once or twice.  There’s a learning curve: like most things, the more you do it the better you get and the more you get out of it.

One size doesn’t fit all. You don’t like your shul? Find another one.  People who like large megashuls will not like small ones, and vice versa.  With a large enough Jewish population, matching synagogues to members will approach equilibrium and communities will regroup themselves to minimize unhappiness.

They are not just about their own cohort.  Synagogues have histories. They have plaques on the wall that speak from beyond the grave, and they have obligations to future generations. They have traditions, peculiarities, and idiosyncrasies that are stable but not immutable.  The needs of the current members are important but not dispositive.

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Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, California, just two blocks from the beach. He previously served Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City and as Hillel director and Jewish chaplain at MIT in Cambridge, MA. He teaches Talmud in the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism). Rabbi Dan is Av Bet Din (president of the court) of the Southern California Community Bet Din, a pluralistic community court for conversion to Judaism, and has served the community as a chaplain for the Los Angeles Police Department. He is a mesadder gittin – a rabbi trained to write and supervise Jewish divorce documents – certified by the Rabbinical Assembly and serves as Av Bet Din for the Pacific Southwest region. He is a licensed private pilot, motorcyclist, and has apprenticed as an auto mechanic with Tom and Ray Magliozzi in Cambridge (of "Car Talk" on National Public Radio). He has flirted with many instruments over the years, and still can be heard entertaining the children on the accordion every Friday at the Mishkon Tephilo pre-school. He is also a timpanist, which he studied with Aaron Smith, and is principal percussionist of the Palisades Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra in Pacific Palisades. He lives in Venice, California with his son Noah and Humuhumunukunuku, a Moluccan Cockatoo.

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