Hillel International runs a program on college campuses called “Ask Big Questions.” It gives students an opportunity to consider topics such as “How Do We Grow?,” “When Do You Take a Stand?,” “How Do We Mourn?,” “When Are We Free,?” and many others that are essential to a considered life. It also gives participants the experience of examining these questions in community, to hear and learn from others, both in person and in the texts of our Jewish tradition.
We all have big questions and we all need a community with which to think about them. For Jews, that community has traditionally been the synagogue.
While American Jews may think of the synagogue as “a House of Worship,” it has always equally been a place of study and a meeting place. In each of these aspects of synagogue life we have the opportunity for the spiritual growth which comes from engaging with others addressing these basic human concerns. The synagogue is unique in American Jewish life as a place we can bring all that we are—our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves—to these explorations in partnership with others.
Communal prayer and celebration give us an opening for both joy and contemplation as we reflect on the gift of life and how best to use it. Shabbat allows a disengagement from weekday demands so that we may gain perspective on our values and priorities. Participating in communal ritual both refreshes our own spirits and strengthens our connections with others who share our values.
All forms of Jewish study encourage us to ask profound questions about human experience. Our tradition creates an extraordinary conversation across millennia, allowing us to garner the wisdom of generations past and discover a common humanity which unites us with one another in the present. Synagogue study challenges us to learn on a deep level, involving action as well as intellect, weaving our knowledge into our lives.
For many contemporary Jews, living out our Jewish values through work for social justice is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew. In the context of a synagogue community, this commitment is rooted in taking considered action with others, with whom we consider profound questions of commitment and risk, based on our common vision. It also means we are not alone in the search to make compassionate and healing choices in our daily lives.
The rabbis taught: אין התורה נקנית אלא בחבורה ein haTorah nikneit ela bechavurah—“Torah can only be acquired in community (Babylonian Talmud B’rachot 63b).” When we experience Jewish life in the community of a synagogue we are strengthened by a sense of common purpose and support. We will always have big questions—the synagogue is where we can do our best to answer them.
–Rabbi Drorah Setel, Jewish Ledger, 2019