Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
Making Our Large Synagogue Small: A Real Way to Do It
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
The Jerusalem Talmud contains a fascinating description of the Great Synagogue of Alexandria, Egypt. It was constructed as a large basilica with one colonnade inside another. It had 71 gold thrones set up, one for each of the elders who governed the Jewish community. The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Judah once said about the structure that “whoever has never seen the double colonnade of Alexandria in Egypt has never seen Israel’s glory in his entire life.” Alexandria was one of the first megasized synagogues in the Jewish world. It was so large that not everyone could see the bimah, and so when the congregation was meant to say Amen, men would wave flags to alert the crowds who could not hear or see the bimah.
Inside the synagogue, the order of seating was very specific. People sat according to trade: weavers sat with weavers, blacksmiths sat with blacksmiths, farmers sat with farmers, and so on. The Talmud explains the reason for this was that when a newcomer to the city would enter, he could easily find his fellow tradesman and on that basis earn a living. This practice not only helped these newcomers find their way in a new location, but it provided a comfort zone to individuals in such a large community.
Temple Beth Am is similarly very large. We don’t need flags during the High Holy Days because we have large screens, but the idea is the same. Our size can seem daunting for old and new members alike as they try to make their way and find their niche within our large community. In so many ways, our size is a true gift. But in terms of socialization, in can be difficult to find instant avenues to other like-minded members searching for friendship and fellowship.
We do not have seating areas based on occupations, but the concept makes a great deal of sense. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone at Temple had a built-in group of friends, or an affinity group, that made them feel comfortable from the moment they entered? And wouldn’t be great if all those groups then came together as a united community?
This in a nutshell is the idea behind chavurot. Chavurot are groups of 10 families, couples or singles that join together to create a mini-unit within the larger community. They generally meet monthly and engage in thoughtful, creative and fun Jewish activity on their own, and then join together at the Temple for services, educational experiences and all the programming that Temple Beth Am has to offer.
The advantages of being part of such a group are quite simple; 1) You have an immediate group of friends to share experiences with at the Temple, and 2) You have a smaller group of friends to share deeper and more intimate Jewish experiences over the course of the year. Several other large synagogues across the country have found success with this model, and we believe we can as well.
We understand that this concept is beyond the comfort zone of many of our members. But we also understand that research shows that most Jews are yearning for more peak Jewish experiences, that despite their knowledge of Judaism or their personal history, they do yearn for spiritual growth and would be willing to try if the experience was worth their time and had something to offer. We now have that — we have curriculum to guide your group, we have the ability to help you form a group, we have the resources to help you gain traction and get started, and we have the members who are looking to be part of a group.
If you really want to make a change in your life this High Holy Day season, if you want your prayers to guide you in a new direction, begin by forming a chavurah at Beth Am. Within one year of doing so, you will do more, know more, experience more fun and innovative Jewish experiences with your favorite people than perhaps ever before. I hope this will be the trend for our future. Together we can continue to frame our large congregation as one that uses its resources to engender friendship, encourage spirituality and nurture real Jewish growth. To get started right away contact Rita Diaz at the Temple (786.364.9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org), and we will have you and your group on your way!
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.