Joke has it that a ship was sailing not too far from a deserted Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when a stranded man is spotted. The rescue crew rushes to the Island where a deserted Jew shows them all that he has built on the Island during his lonely years on the Island with no one else there. They point to two building structures and ask him what those are. “Those are two synagogues”, he responds. Why do you need two synagogues? They ask him. You are only one man here on the island. “one is the synagogue I will pray in and one is the synagogue I will not pray in,” he responded.
This well-known joke is a clear portrait of the tragically divided situation in Jewish communities around the world. However, nowhere in the world is this division felt as strongly as it is in the United States. A century ago — and currently in most of Europe, South Africa, South American, much of Canada, and Australia — most Jews felt that their place was within the orthodox synagogue. This did not mean they felt a need to be observant, it just meant that Orthodox synagogues were a place where everyone felt welcome. This is a situation we need to work and recreate for the sake of the broader Jewish community. Having a golden standard synagogue is something that is in everyone’s best interest.
The benefits of a traditional Orthodox synagogue structure are great. First and foremost reason is that doing so would protect the Jewish people from the horrors of division we have seen, particularly over the past 50 years in the United States. It makes sure that we don’t have different communities drifting in different directions, and that communities don’t lose their vibrancy and sustainability once they have lost their source of vitality once whatever trend they have been following fades away. We lost 10 out of 12 tribes of Israel, we lost millions of Jews throughout the millennia to division and dispersion, we need to lose more due to a voluntary division.
Another benefit of a standard Jewish synagogue in which all feel welcome is the familiarity aspect of it. Jews from all backgrounds and from any place in the world should be able to walk into any synagogue and feel at home. This will make synagogue attending easier and will make synagogue attendance an easier and more common phenomenon.
Thirdly, having a golden standard synagogue would allow Jews from different backgrounds meet and interact with each other, maintaining the unity which has been so vital to keeping our people going.
To the question of who said that this will work, the answer is clear and unequivocal: the above description of an unorthodox-Orthodox-synagogue is the description of America’s fastest-growing-denomination‘s synagogue-Chabad.
Chabad has been doing exactly this: creating an Orthodoxly structured synagogue in which people from all denominations feel welcome. No matter where in the world you might go, no matter who in the world you might be, Chabad will be there in the same familiar setting.
Having such a structure in a way that assures that everyone feels welcome, yet maintains the traditional structure of synagogue, is what Jews want most at this time. We know they want this because the numbers Chabad is showing, and because this is what reality is like in most communities outside the United States.
I spoke recently with a family who had emigrated from Europe to the United States and had asked them what shocked them the most when coming here. They in return shocked me by telling me that the most shocking thing to them was when they came to the United States and walked into synagogues and temples here and saw how different they were while in Europe, despite not being Orthodox, they found a home and comfort in the traditional synagogue structure. They were not the only ones.
The same is true in Israel. Jews from the broadest spectrum of observance — or lack thereof — when going to synagogue, go to a traditional synagogue. What happens in the United States is the exception, not the norm.
History has shown that unity a fundamental component for Jewish survival. Having a unified synagogue structure in which all Jews feel welcome and accepted while keeping to the traditional structure of synagogue, will facilitate stronger bonds among Jews, help us connect to those with different backgrounds than us, and enhance our ability Jewish identity, regardless of how strong we think it may be. Am Echad. We are one Nation.
Published in the Times of Israel Blogs on February 12th, 2017