The Synagogue: I-Thou

Emily Goldberg
October 22, 2012
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syn·a·gogue: A building or place of meeting for religious instruction in the Jewish faith.

As a seventeen-year old spiritual seeker, I have strived to find a community that caters the needs of my evolving Judaism. In the heart of South Florida, my family and committed ourselves to multiple synagogues throughout my childhood, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Despite the burgeoning statistics of unaffiliated Jewry in America, I was a fully active member in my synagogues, indulging in all of the resources that each was able to offer, from more traditional services to liberal Torah studies. During the simchot, the familiar faces of my synagogue instinctively appeared in my sanctuary, arms open with warmth. Moreover, when tragedies or other galvanizing events occurred in the area, my community, regardless of denomination, created an immediate support system. For me, my Judaism and synagogues were a “take and keep taking” relationship, and that was perfectly convenient.

Today, as a post bat mitzvah and Hebrew school student in the Upper West Side of Manhattan (as of seven months ago), my needs aren’t as standard anymore. I attempted to transport my same synagogue lifestyle but have failed miserably. Searching for a synagogue without my own direct needs became a challenge and suddenly, enjoying typical weekly Shabbat services and wise clergy’s company didn’t seem like enough to me.

Perhaps it was the drastic change in environments that inspired me to reexamine my role as the “benefactor” in synagogues. In New York, the Mecca of Jewish living, there is a gothic synagogue on every corner, but at least a minyan of impoverished people outside of it. Thousands of Jews gather in air-conditioned sanctuaries to hear that we have an obligation to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and satisfy needs that are far greater than the kind of Shabbat services we want to attend. Every synagogue I joined was an outlet to the understanding that there are Jews worldwide who struggle to make ends meet. Suddenly, my consistent pattern of utilizing all of my synagogue’s resources felt selfish; if I love any synagogue, then how can I see it thrive?

While I respect those who benefit from all the programs a synagogue has to offer, I also see the synagogue as an impetus for contributing our own strengths. Using Martin Buber’s philosophy of I-Thou, or the relation of subject to subject, I currently attempt to involve myself in a synagogue with intentions of giving my strengths and overcoming my weaknesses—simply because I love the community. A synagogue, while seemingly like any other building, is by no means an I-It, or the relation between of object-to-subject. As the pioneers of a new generation of Jewish leaders, we must never limit our perspective of synagogues by the ways they should serve us, but rather, how we can strengthen and sustain them.

Today, my Judaism has compromised itself to a “give and take” relationship: I take the values I learn inside my center of worship and religious practice, but give my time and dedication in order to cater to its struggling community.

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Emily Goldberg is a freshman at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She loves sharing her perspective on faith and religion, especially with her own growing Jewish community. She began recording her own ideas in her blog, “A Leap of Faith.” In the future, she hopes to pursue interfaith studies, social action, theology, and writing. This past summer she joined a life-long community of Jewish thinkers and leaders, The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. This year, she pursued her passion for spiritual leadership through her rabbinic internship at Romemu [], her pastoral internship at St. Patrick's Cathedral and her job as a counselor at Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia. She hopes to lead a liberal and innovative Jewish community of her own someday, one where others can be inspired to pursue coexistence and positive change.

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