The Jewish Voice recently conducted the following email interview with Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser about where the congregation stands as it celebrates its 60th anniversary.
Q. How have the goals and purpose of a synagogue or temple changed in 60 years?
A. The goals and purposes of synagogues have not really changed much in nearly 2,000 years. Synagogues are still the spiritual home of the Jewish people. They are the places where we gather on our holy days, and in times of joy and sorrow. They are where we find comfort in being with our people.
However, the way we fulfill those goals and purposes is changing, and quickly, here in the early 21st century. The model of synagogue membership that has existed in North America for more than one hundred years is showing its age and it is facing challenges. Jews no longer feel a cultural obligation to join a synagogue as a sign of identity and support for the Jewish community.
In order to fulfill our goal of being a gathering place for the Jewish community, temples and synagogues today have to prove – over and over – that being part of the community is worthwhile. We have to do more to make people feel welcome, no matter what their background, identity, and previous experiences. Interfaith families, non-traditional families, people of different races and sexual orientations all have to feel warmly embraced.
Also, today’s temples and synagogues have to address the issues that make a difference in people’s lives. We need to be a moral beacon and take action on the difficult issues of our day where Jewish tradition demands action. We have to show that being Jewish matters, not just in how we pray and how we celebrate holidays, but in how we confront a world that has gone awry from the values declared by our prophets – justice, compassion for the poor, love of our neighbors, peace and moral leadership.
These issues have always been at the heart of the Jewish community, but in order to remain relevant, today’s temples and synagogues face a critical challenge to take action.
Q. Can you talk about the new worship programs you’ve put into place recently?
A. We do a lot of different things at Temple Sinai, as you would expect from a medium-sized congregation that serves a diverse community. We have an outstanding religious school that teaches children through fun and engaging projects. We have two youth groups for middle school and high school students to socialize with other Jewish students and grow in their Jewish identity.
We experiment with different styles of worship, including meditation services, summer camp style services for young families, “Ask the Rabbi” services, and Visual Tefilah services (in which the prayerbook is projected on a screen). We want everyone to have an opportunity to worship in a way that is attractive, interesting and engaging for them.
Temple Sinai is a community of people who want to keep learning about Judaism. I think of every service as a “learners service,” and that’s why I include a variety of simple and meaningful explanations of the prayers at every service.
Our adult education classes are designed to appeal to a variety of interests. Over the summer, we had a class on how to design and make your own tallit.
I teach classes on Jewish history and thought, sacred texts, and on contemporary issues that affect our society, Israel, and the world. For several years, I have taught evening classes in conjunction with Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Cranston that compares the sacred teachings of our two religions. This year, the course will focus on the Jewish roots in the Book of Matthew.
Q. Your interfaith work indicates that you have a strong social conscience and try to instill that in the congregation. Can you talk about that?
A. From the time of the Bible, being a Jew has meant being a person who cares about the world. Our prophets declared that the God we worship is not just the God of our particular nation, but the God of the entire world, who cares about the entire world and who seeks love and justice for the entire world.
To be a Jew is to be involved with the issues of our world today. That is why I am proud to be actively involved in the Jewish Alliance’s initiatives for social justice, and it is why I am proud to be a leader in Rhode Island’s interfaith movement to reduce poverty. In all the things we do at Temple Sinai, we are mindful of our obligation to make the world a better place.
Q. What goals or programs can you see the temple pursuing in the years ahead, and how can the temple remain vibrant as many congregations are facing an aging membership?
A. The American Jewish community is aging. It is a trend we see very clearly in Rhode Island. Because people today live longer and are able to remain active longer, we see more older people in our congregations. Because of the high rate of interfaith marriage and because of changing attitudes toward joining faith communities, we see fewer young families in the congregation.
But that is not a reason to expect temples and synagogues to be less vibrant today. By serving the needs of the community we have, by giving people experiences that nurture them spiritually, socially and intellectually, we remain vital and energetic. By reaching out to families that may not have considered joining a Temple, and by making them feel included and welcome, we keep bringing new people into the congregation.
The future of the Jewish community – at Temple Sinai, in Rhode Island, and across North America – is bright. We are seeing a resurgence of Jewish communal involvement in action on social issues. We are seeing a resurgence of Jews who seek to develop their spiritual lives and who are finding answers within Judaism. We are seeing a new Golden Age of Jewish engagement with people of other faiths so that we can learn from each other, build a better society together, and find reconciliation with our past. The present moment is a great time to be a Jew and to build a better Jewish community.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.