Choosing a synagogue is a highly personal decision. The author recommends speaking to synagogue members and leaders to find out important information about the synagogue, and using that information as one component of deciding on a synagogue. The following is a suggested list of questions to ask.
Members of the Community
- Who belongs to the shul? Is it a community of young families, empty nesters, singles, or a blend?
- Does the synagogue view itself as being multi-generational, or are different “interest groups” (families, older adults) more represented than others?
- How many family units does it have?
- To which movement or denomination, if any, does the synagogue belong? How “typical” of that movement is the synagogue, and in what ways does it differ from others in that movement?
- How many of the congregation’s families are intermarried? How are intermarried families integrated into the community?
- Are openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual members welcomed into the community with their families?
- Where do its members live? Is there a tightly knit neighborhood around the synagogue or are members more geographically spread-out?
- Who is on the professional staff (including clergy)?
- Where were the clergy trained? Are they accepted members of professional organizations?
- How many people attend an average Shabbat service? Holiday service? Weekday lecture, adult-learning, social event, or other synagogue program?
Prayer and Worship
- What is its schedule of prayer services?
- What type(s) of prayer services are available? (Larger synagogues may have multiple services in different styles and targeting different groups.)
- Is there separate seating for men and women? If so, what kind of arrangement (mehitzah/partition or balcony) is it?
- Are women included in opportunities to lead services, read Torah, and perform other ritual functions?
- Are there children’s services on Shabbat and holy days?
- What is the balance of Hebrew and English in the service?
- What is the style of the service?
- Does the rabbi give a sermon every week, and if so, what style does he or she employ?
- How much music or singing is included among the prayers, and are any instruments played?
- Are services led by a professional cantor or led by lay leaders?
- Are there opportunities to learn about the liturgy and/or to study how to lead prayers?
- Are services “kid-friendly”? Will members, or the rabbi, be upset if a young child is fussy during services? Do teens have opportunities to read from the Torah or lead services even after they come bar/bat mitzvahs?
Observance of Jewish Law
- Is the facility kosher? What are its policies regarding food consumed on the premises?
- To what extent does the synagogue observe Shabbat and holidays in its facility? Does it allow the use of electricity? Do members drive to synagogue?
- What is the range of observance among congregants?
- Is the synagogue welcoming to families at differing levels of observance?
Education for Children
- Does the synagogue have a Hebrew School?
- What grades does the school include? How many hours per week are students in classes?
- What subjects are covered, and what are the teachers’ qualifications?
- Is there a bar/bat mitzvah preparatory program?
- Are there educational opportunities for children after their bar/bat mitzvahs?
- Does the synagogue offer adult education programs? Are there classes in learning Hebrew or Torah study?
- Does the synagogue offer education and resources for potential converts?
- Are there youth groups and other social opportunities for children and teens?
- Is there a sisterhood and/or brotherhood?
- Does the synagogue feature guest lectures or scholar-in-residence programs?
- Does the synagogue hold social events for different groups, like singles or young couples?
Social & Political Issues
- Does the synagogue hold itself to environmentally friendly policies regarding recycling, water-usage, lighting choices, and the like?
- Does the synagogue have a specific political or religious position in relation to Israel? Is there an Israel-interest group through the synagogue?
- Does the synagogue take part in any regularly scheduled (weekly, monthly, annual) social action activities (feeding the homeless, assisting in building projects, food collection)?
- Do the rabbi and/or others often speak from the pulpit about political issues? If so, what are their political leanings and what issues are most central to them?
Costs & Fees
- How much are dues and how are they paid?
- Is there a building fund payment required? What is the schedule for its payment?
- Is financial aid available? Is the process respectful?
- If there is a Hebrew School, how much does it cost?
- Do member need to pay extra for tickets to High Holiday services?
- Is the facility accessible to persons of all physical abilities? Are there ramps in and out of the building, elevators to all floors, and a variety of seating options? Is there reserved seating for care-givers at holidays, too?
- Is the bimah (stage-like area housing the Torah in its ark, from which services are often led) accessible by those using wheelchairs or walkers?
- Is there plenty of handicapped parking set aside?
- Are arrangements available for the education of children and teens with learning and/or developmental disabilities? Are they included within the synagogue’s school(s)? How are they trained for bar/bat mitzvah services?
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.