by Rabbi Alex Freedman
Who’s ready for summer? Who’s not ready for summer?
So many of us are ready for the weather to stay warm, for school to end, for work to
slow down, and for a well-earned vacation.
As you make your plans, make a plan to visit a synagogue wherever you go.
Many years ago my family visited Venice, Italy, over Winter Break. I have fond
memories of that trip’s delicious food, gondolas, more food, spectacular glass artwork,
and going to shul. And no, I wasn’t a rabbi yet.
That Friday my family toured the Venice ghetto, the first in Europe, and we walked
through a 500-year-old synagogue whose architecture was something I had never seen.
It looked like an antique – beautiful, fragile, and impractical for use today. At the end, the
tour guide mentioned this shul was in use on Shabbat morning, and my family decided
to return the next day.
As we entered the towering sanctuary on Shabbat morning, the dusty old place came
alive. It was like a movie switched from black and white to color. The room was full of
people, full of singing, and full of energy. I didn’t know a word of Italian, they didn’t
speak English, yet I felt at home. I sang along because I knew the tunes from the
Siddur. I followed along with the Torah reading because I could read Hebrew (I learned
a few Italian names of Patriarchs that day: Abramo, Isacco, Giacobbi, Giuseppe). I had
never experienced this before. I was in a new place and knew nobody, but I felt at
home. The universality of the Siddur made this possible, making me feel that the people
around me were not total strangers but just cousins I hadn’t yet met.
The home is obviously where one’s Jewish foundation is set. But there are some things
one can understand only by leaving home.
I know I’m not the only one to experience this. If you are traveling abroad, going to
synagogue on Shabbat will be something unforgettable the family can do together. No
tickets, lines, or gift shops necessary. And if you’re stateside, you can probably find a
service nearby too. If not, write to me and I’ll help with this.
In one sense, the place makes the people. Our sanctuary – specifically the Bimah, Ark,
and windows – make people feel inspired, connected, spiritual. But the place also brings
the people. The Hebrew for synagogue is Beit Knesset, which means “house of
gathering.” It’s a place to meet others with the same traditions and values. Mostly,
though, the people make the place.
The Shma prayer instructs us to speak of Torah and Jewish traditions “BShivt’ha
Bveitecha Uvlecht’ha Vaderech – at home and on the road.” I usually think of this as
pushing us to be proud Jews both in private (at home) and in public (on the road). But I
also read this verse as instructing us to be active Jews when we’re going about our
routine (around home) and when we travel (on the road).
An empty synagogue, like the gorgeous one in Venice, is a deserted museum. But when
people fill it up, it becomes a vibrant hub for Jewish life. Anywhere, as you’ll see for
yourself next vacation.