Synagogues and Spiritual Communities

Matt Shapiro
October 30, 2012
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i grew up in a synagogue
where i found my spirituality outside of the sanctuary
and my community was my friends.
we would gather together on shabbat afternoon
play basketball football and frisbee
read tv guides
make up stupid inside jokes
and raid the pantry of whoever’s home we were at that shabbat.
i was lucky to have that.
my community was the families my parents were close to.
my family was all in new york, so we did find community through our synagogue, yes
but not at our synagogue.
community was gathering on friday night
one family hosting, all families sharing
kids running, parents talking
no matter how often you saw each other during the week, during the month
you were still genuinely happy to see everyone.
that’s community.
every year i would stay up all night on shavuot
learning, or some approximation of it
eating ice cream and pizza all night is learning, right?
truth is, i learned more those nights with others than i could in years by myself.
i would crash at a friend’s house, literally right next to the synagogue
a gorgeous home, right on lake michigan
no pretensions, just sleep wherever,
you have a place here.
i would roll out of bed, 11:30, noon, one
my learning still giving me a stomachache
shake it off, and walk down sheridan road
where all the families,
my families, same families from that monthly group
would gather for lunch on the first day
smiling to see us
bleary eyed from the extra beds and pullout couches
who had been learning so hard
we could have developed diabetes overnight.
spiritual community is redundant.
community is spiritual, spirituality happens in community.
you can have your still, small voices
but you can’t live on the mountaintop.
synagogue as spiritual community?
how can you pay membership dues to have your soul set on fire?
how can email blasts tell you who makes your heart sing?
how can the most exquisite room of a building that took 10 years to build
costing thousands and thousands
be used for services that no one enjoys or understands
and then claim, yes, this is the place to find god.
it’s one way.
it’s not the only way.
there’s no such thing as a healthy monopoly.
god is found in ourselves through others
and in others through our selves.
you say, independent minyans will never last.
you say, the structures will need to be in place eventually.
you say, they’ll wind up joining synagogues anyway.
god forbid, you say, they’ll never join synagogues at all.
i hear you.
i agree.
but notice a community has been formed
with true effort, with love, with care
not with a misplaced sense of obligation
and the central, paralyzing anxiety over what might happen
if my child doesn’t memorize verses he doesn’t understand
to chant before indifferent relatives and smirking friends
by the time he turns 13.
these past high holidays, i davenned with my peers at beit tshuvah
the polar opposite of the standard suburban shul i grew up in
i was filled with fear over how it would be possible to find god
in a place filled with musical instruments
and lacking all the hebrew and chanting i’ve come to know so well.
i heard and felt god more deeply in those two days
than i did, combined, in 18 years.
there was truth.
there was presence.
there was spirit.
there was community.

growing up,

i found my spirituality outside of the sanctuary

and my community was my friends.

we would gather together on shabbat afternoon

play basketball football and frisbee

read tv guides

make up stupid inside jokes

and raid the pantry of whoever’s home we were at that shabbat.

i was lucky to have that.


my community was the families my parents were close to.

my family was all in new york, so we did find community through our synagogue, yes,

but not just at the synagogue.

community was gathering on friday night

one family hosting, all families sharing

kids running, parents talking

no matter how often you saw each other during the week, during the month

you were still genuinely happy to see everyone.

that’s community.


every year i would stay up all night on shavuot

learning, or some approximation of it

eating ice cream and pizza all night is learning, right?

truth is, i learned more those nights with others than i could in years by myself.

i would crash at a friend’s house, literally right next to the synagogue

a gorgeous home, right on lake michigan

no pretensions, just sleep wherever,

you have a place here.

i would roll out of bed, 11:30, noon, one

my learning still giving me a stomachache

shake it off, and walk down the road

where all the families,

my families, same families from that monthly group

would gather for lunch on the first day

smiling to see us

bleary eyed from the extra beds and pullout couches

who had been learning so hard

we could have developed diabetes overnight.


spiritual community is redundant.

community is spiritual, spirituality happens in community.

you can have your still, small voices

but you can’t live on the mountaintop.


synagogue as spiritual community?

how can you just send an annual check to have your soul set on fire?

how can email blasts tell you what makes your heart sing?

how can the most exquisite room of a building that took years to build

costing thousands, even millions,

be used for services that few enjoy or understand

and then claim, yes, this is the place to find god!

it’s a way.

it’s not the only way.

there’s no such thing as a healthy monopoly.


god is found in ourselves through others

and in others through our selves.


you say, independent minyans will never last.

that structures will need to be in place eventually.

that they’ll wind up joining synagogues anyway.

god forbid, you say, they’ll never join synagogues at all.

i hear you.

i agree.

but notice a community has been formed

with true effort, with love, with care

not with a misplaced sense of obligation via heredity alone

and the central, paralyzing anxiety over what might happen

if my child doesn’t memorize verses he doesn’t understand

to chant before indifferent relatives and smirking friends

by the time he turns 13.


these past high holidays, i davenned at beit t’shuvah

the polar opposite of the standard suburban shul i grew up in.

i was filled with fear over how it would be possible to find god

in a place with musical instruments

and lacking much of the liturgy i’ve come to know so well.

i heard and felt god more deeply in those days

than i have for years and years.


there was truth.

there was presence.

there was spirit.

there was community.

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