Judith Huebner

*It Takes a Congregation to Be a Jew* Provided by Judith Huebner

Is, as so many of us think, the most common reason why people don’t belong to a temple, “membership dues?” Surprisingly this is not actually the case. Oh, it’s one of the top reasons, but the actual number one reason that people gave is that they feel “they can be Jewish without belonging to a congregation.”

With her permission, here’s a wonderful response inspired by the Membership Chairperson of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, California. As a convert to Judaism, she found it difficult to imagine being Jewish without belonging to a temple since that is where she learned “everything she know,” how to light Shabbat candles, how to sing the Shema, and the meaning behind the blessing for wearing a tallit. She remarked that she could have learned these things from a book – there are hundreds of books about Jewish rituals. If she needed a visual, she could have watched Fiddler on the Roof. The danger there, of course, is confusing the story line with Jewish practice … And while she’s celebrated the Festival of Lights at Hanukkah and the Festival of Trees at Tu B’Shevat, she’s still waiting for the Festival of Matchmaking where we take towels and bed sheets off the clothesline and dance around. Maybe many who were born Jewish take these all for granted.

Being Jewish without belonging to a temple is like growing up without parents, without siblings, without extended family. Your body only needs food, water, shelter, and clothes to survive, but for your spirit to flourish, you need people. As a member of a synagogue, memories of Judaism are forever entwined with the people who’ve taught you and shared with you. There’s the smile on other congregants’ faces when you light candles, the handshake when you’re called up for an aliyah, the hug when you wrap a tallit around your shoulders perhaps for the first time.

Being Jewish without belonging to a congregation is like riding in a car without a seatbelt. Technically, you can do it. But is it really a good idea? Your membership means that you have wonderful clergy to help you through difficult times. When tragedy strikes and a congregant asks, “What do I do now?” and the rabbi’s comforting voice responds, “breathe…for right now, just breathe.”

Being Jewish without belonging to a congregation is like popping a bottle of champagne and drinking a toast to a job promotion in the middle of an empty kitchen. It tastes good, yes, but the occasion is even happier and the good feelings last longer when you have people to share in your joy.

You can sing in the shower, and you may sound great to yourself, but it’s nothing like joining in with the cantor, the band, the rabbi and the congregation during Friday Night Live.

From baby namings to bar/bat mitzvahs, blessings for the bride and groom, anniversaries, and holidays, the congregation knows how to party and share the celebration.

You can know how to read, yet choose to not open a book. You can possess a passport but never see the country. And yes, you can be Jewish and not belong to a temple. But you’d miss out on something that is truly spectacular.