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While belonging to a synagogue makes a person part of a particular community, it does not necessarily convey a sense of belonging to a family. Many congregations are quite large these days and it can be difficult to find your niche within the larger crowd.
When I began attending services at Temple Israel--a large, urban Reform congregation in Boston--several years ago, I made a small group of friends through an educational program at the temple. They were the people I sat with at services, studied with on Saturday mornings, talked with at oneg (light refreshments after the service). But slowly, over time, our group began to fade. One couple relocated to another state, another moved to a Boston suburb and joined a temple closer to home, others decided not to attend services as frequently.
As the synagogue family I had created began to fall away, I felt less a part of the community, attended services less, and even began to feel somewhat alienated from the synagogue as a whole. The people around me at temple all seemed to share connections through their families, having children in Hebrew school, or celebrating similar life-cycle events together. I needed to find new ways to help me reconnect with the congregation, to re-build a synagogue family for myself.
This task can be particularly challenging for single people and those without children, or people whose children have grown up and left home, as sharing the milestones surrounding family, children's education and activities, and family-related life-cycle events is one of the easiest ways to build connections with other people in your synagogue.
I am still trying to re-create a sense of family within my synagogue. While I do not attend Shabbat services as often as I used to, I have had Shabbat dinner with the same group of friends one Friday a month for four-and-a-half years, and we have never missed a month!
So, if you find yourself feeling lost as a part of a larger congregation, or simply want to make stronger connections with a group of people in your temple, what can you do? I have found these suggestions helpful in my efforts to create, and re-create, a synagogue family.
* Talk to the Rabbi
The rabbi at your temple is certainly interested in helping the congregants feel as though the synagogue is a family. Perhaps your rabbi could introduce you to some other temple members she thinks might be in a similar situation or might share other interests with you. I have found that knowing the rabbi a bit helps to make me feel more connected to the services and makes me feel that I belong to the synagogue as a whole.
* Attend Adult Ed and Other Activities at Your Synagogue
By attending Hebrew or any type of Jewish education classes, you will be putting yourself in a smaller group within your synagogue, which is a good way to make connections with people of similar interests.
* Start a Shabbat or Torah Study Group
Ask a few people you feel comfortable with to study Torah or make Shabbat dinner together once a month. If you don't know anyone you can ask, put up a poster or place a blurb in your temple newsletter. I have been making Shabbat dinner once a month with the same group of people for over four years. Our group helps us feel connected to one another and to Judaism; it is definitely one of the most rewarding kinds of synagogue family.
* Be Bold and Approach People
Most likely there are other people in your temple who feel as you do and would welcome a chance to make some new friends. Try to introduce yourself to those around you at Shabbat (Sabbath) or High Holiday services and look for these familiar faces from week to week.
* Look at Another Synagogue
Consider that your congregation may just be too big for you. It can seem easier to feel a part of the group when the group is 200 rather than 2,000. Visit some other synagogues in your area and see if one of them feels like a better fit. Even if a congregation has felt like home for many years, people's needs change as their lives and families do, and this may mean that you need to look at other options in your synagogue.
Studying, worshipping, and sharing interests with small groups can contribute greatly to your experience of your synagogue. As Judaism must necessarily be practiced as a community, it makes building these relationships seem almost like a mitzvah (commandment). Creating a synagogue family can be a challenge, but it is one that comes with many rewards.