Finding a synagogue can be intimidating. Maybe you’re new in town. Maybe you’ve never joined one before. How do you know it’s right? Is it just a feeling of chemistry and connection? Or does it boil down to more practical matters, like location and parking?
“This is about finding a place filled with people, educators and clergy who you want be around as you build your Jewish life,” says Rabbi Jen Gubitz of Newton’s Temple Shalom.
Here are nine things to ask yourself when looking for a new spiritual home.
What are your priorities?
Before beginning your search, outline your must-haves, such as movement, size and location.
“We chose our shul based on the davening experience and the feeling we had when we were there. As shul-goers, it was important to us that the Shabbat morning service was full of people and vibrant. If your family goes on Friday nights, see how the Friday night service works for your family. Or maybe the Hebrew school and children’s activities are your priority,” says Jennifer Kaufman, who belongs to Minyan Ma’or of Temple Emanuel in Newton.
What are Shabbat services like?
Shabbat services often offer the most comprehensive glimpse into the life of a congregation.
“See if the style and level of observance is right for your family,” says Gubitz. It’s also helpful to evaluate the amount of English present, especially if you have interfaith family members. On the other hand, you might prefer more Hebrew. Sit in on a service to see it in action.
At Wellesley’s Temple Beth Elohim’s Shabbat services, “You see our regulars, you hear our music, some weeks you see our teens in charge of the music. You get a feel for the clergy and learn about the parsha, celebrate with new families and wedding couples, and you stand with the mourners and comfort them through kaddish and then have a nosh in the atrium,” says Susan Karon, who has handled their membership for 28 years.
On the other hand, “High Holy Days [might not be] the best time to check out a congregation—music and liturgy are different,” she says.
How friendly are the congregants?
“[I want to feel that] someone is glad that I’m there. I have been completely turned off by a synagogue when we felt pretty much ignored as new people,” one synagogue-seeker shared.
Sometimes this is a vibe, but you can also inquire about the number of new members per year, programs for new members and social opportunities. But instincts don’t lie—occasionally, even if a synagogue looks great on paper, it’s not the right fit. Listen to your intuition.
What are the kids’ learning programs like?
Ask for your kids to sit in on some classes, and see if there are other families at your life stage. Meet with the educators and speak with the rabbi. Ask about the goals of each program, level of weekly commitment, what subjects are covered, teachers’ qualifications, whether there’s a bar or bat mitzvah program and what the expectations are, and whether there’s a preschool or a youth and teen group, depending on your kids’ ages.
Are there adult education programs?
If civic engagement is important to you, find out if older adults can engage in Jewish life at the synagogue through education or volunteerism. Does their mission speak to you?
How inclusive is it?
Are there new parent programs geared toward blended, interfaith or same-sex families? How are intermarried families integrated into the community, and are there resources for family members who might opt to convert?
What’s the political or religious position with respect to Israel?
It also helps to ask whether there’s an Israel-interest group.
What are the dues?
“Finances are a huge factor in joining a temple. It is a big step for people to join, and congregations need to be able to work with families to make it so they can feel good about becoming members. We never let finances stand in the way of membership. We want everyone to be happy and for no one to say they can’t afford to join,” Karon says.
Is it easy to get to?
Don’t underestimate convenience! This is important—especially if you struggle to get out the door with little kids. Many families said they selected their synagogue based on location and parking! The best synagogue is one you’ll actually visit.