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Many authorities on Jewish life have asserted that the most important rituals in Judaism take place in the home, not in the synagogue. This is mostly true, but not the whole story. Just about anything people do in a synagogue they could do in a home or any sort of building, but there are a lot of aspects of Jewish life that require a community. Synagogues as institutions provide social organization and a space for these activities, including group prayer and study. Jews organize synagogues, rather than the other way around as in some other religious traditions. Through synagogues, congregations hire religious teachers and leaders and make communal activities happen. Synagogues can therefore be great places to get to know Judaism--even the parts of Judaism you only do at home.
Historians used to believe that Jews didn't have synagogues until after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Archeological evidence now suggests that Jews built synagogues for non-sacrificial worship while the Temple was still standing, and possibly even during the Babylonian Exile. This shows that there was a tradition of congregational prayer that was concurrent with the practice of animal sacrifice. Since Jews only sacrificed in this one central temple, they must have wanted to have a place for prayer nearer to where they lived.
After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis who wrote the Talmud worked on creating a standard set of worship services. These services, codified in the siddur or prayerbook, were named after, and timed to correspond with, the sacrificial services in the Temple. In this way, rabbinic Judaism replaced animal sacrifice with prayer. There were three services a day during the week: the morning service, called Shacharit in Hebrew, the afternoon service, Minchah, and the evening service, Ma'ariv. On Shabbat and holidays, the priests in the Temple used to have an additional sacrifice, so the siddur included Musaf, meaning additional service. Though services always included occasional prayers, liturgical poems and improvisation, the siddur provides a structure, a schedule and a set of guidelines for when a congregation is needed.
Though Jews can pray anywhere and don't require a sanctified space, the synagogue is a good place to gather a minyan, or minimum number of adult Jews required to form a congregation required for Torah reading and some of the prayers. Today, when you go to a synagogue, it is usually for a prayer service, often with a Torah reading.
According to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Hebrew scriptures and to post-biblical rabbinic literature, Jews had the practice of public Torah reading in the Second Temple period. It was then that they began reading from the first five books of the Hebrew bible, the five books of Moses, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Since the rabbis ruled that public Torah reading requires a congregation of 10 to be public, synagogues have become the place to do this. Torah reading has been integrated into prayer services.
In the contemporary Jewish world, synagogues keep their Torah scrolls in a cabinet, called in Hebrew the aron kodesh. Usually this is translated holy ark. The scrolls are treated like holy things--they aren't allowed to touch the floor and people kiss them, usually using a mediating object like a prayer book or the fringes of their prayer shawl. Practices vary (that's true about just about everything involving the synagogue), but in worship services in which the Torah is read, the scrolls often are removed from the ark with some ceremony and paraded around the congregation. Torah readers use a pointer called a yad, which means hand, to keep their places as they read from the scroll.
In some synagogues, only Jewish men are invited to have Torah-associated honors. In others, all Jewish adults are allowed to open the ark and to help undress and dress and lift up the scroll. Most importantly, they are invited to recite the blessing over the sections of the reading--this is called having an aliyah. Different congregations have different rules about what parts non-Jews may take in the Torah service. Some congregations will honor the non-Jewish partners of Jews by allowing them to have an aliyah jointly with their Jewish partner, or to read the translation in English.
If you are at a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony or the Torah service before someone's wedding, the congregation may try to find a way to honor you. It's good to make sure that people giving out honors know whether you are Jewish, and also to feel OK about turning down an honor if it makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, if you aren't Jewish and the congregation has come up with a way to give you an honor, it's a good thing, if you do feel comfortable doing it, to accept it. It benefits the congregation to find ways to honor beloved non-Jewish relatives and friends, and it's not a way of pressuring you to be Jewish.
Special Prayers For Holidays
Jewish holidays have their own special prayers. The siddur model contains both the remnants of the old Temple pilgrimage holiday cycle, and additional prayers that have been added over the last nine or 10 centuries. For most holidays, there is a custom of reciting Hallel, a set of psalms of praise. On the major holidays, there is a custom of reciting a memorial service, called Yizkor, to remember dead relatives. On Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, there is an additional service for blowing the shofar, or ram's horn. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there are several additional services that can make the time in the synagogue stretch out all day. (Which is fine if you're fasting and don't have to get home for lunch anyway.) Some of these prayers and rituals require a congregation, which is why the synagogue is a perfect place for them. There are also home rituals for nearly all holidays.
Lifecycle Events (But Not All Of Them!)
This might surprise you: it's not important in Judaism to get married in a synagogue. Marriage does not require a full congregation of witnesses, only the two needed to sign the marriage contract. On the other hand, it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to make the bride and groom rejoice, so it's customary to have a big party. Synagogues usually have social halls and kitchens to make this possible.
There was a tradition in many Jewish communities of holding girl baby-naming ceremonies in synagogue, while most boy baby namings, which happened during ritual circumcisions, could happen in family homes, synagogues or other venues. One girl baby-naming tradition was to announce the girl's name during the Torah reading in synagogue. In the last 30 years, many Jewish parents have created new rituals for naming girls, but the custom of announcing a girl's name before the Torah in synagogue is still done in many places. (I was named that way.)
Many families make a big celebration for their children's religious maturity, called a bar mitzvah (son of commandments) or a bat mitzvah (daughter of commandments.) At 13, the child is old enough to be responsible for his or her own actions and can have adult honors. In most synagogues, the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah learns to read the Torah portion, and possibly to lead a part of the service, and in some congregations, to give a short talk about the meaning of the Torah portion. Most bar and bat mitzvah celebrations take place at a regular Saturday morning service, which can last two or three hours.
The Reform movement in Judaism started two lifecycle traditions: consecration and confirmation. Consecration brought into the synagogue some of the many Jewish folk customs for celebrating the beginning of Jewish education. These were much less formal customs like giving children sweets in the shape of letters or putting honey on the slate or on a book to teach the child learning is sweet. Consecreation is more formal--the children receive miniature Torah scrolls around the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah.
Confirmation was originally intended as an egalitarian replacement for bar mitzvah, but no one wanted to give up bar mitzvah. Instead, families began to give their daughters equal responsibility and attention for the bat mitzvah, and some synagogues used, and continue to use, the Confirmation ceremony as a way of extending Jewish education. Held on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Confirmation is a stately ceremony at the end of what can be serious Jewish education.
Funerals are sometimes held in synagogues, but not in all communities. Some have a strong preference for funeral services to be in funeral homes and at the graveside.
Providing a place for study is a very important function of synagogues. Many families don't join a synagogue until they need a children's supplemental religious school in order to prepare children for bar or bat mitzvah. Synagogues often also house preschool programs, sometimes with Jewish content. Children's programming is what brings in the most people, but adult and family education programming is what helps retain them.
Usually programming for interfaith couples is part of adult and family education programs. Some classes that aren't labelled for interfaith families may be great for you, no matter what you know when you start them. Torah and other text study classes with the rabbi or another Jewish educator are not only for people who already have a background in Hebrew. Finding intellectually stimulating adult study can be a revelation, point of entry for adult spiritual life that goes beyond your own childhood religious education (which you may or may not remember fondly.)
Other Community Activities
Synagogues also house social action or charitable efforts, like canned food drives, sanctuary for refugee families and pastoral care for elders. If the synagogue is affiliated with a Jewish denomination like the Reform or Conservative movements, they may participate in some nationwide charitable program, like activism for Darfur or providing mosquito netting to prevent malaria.