Here at JOI, we believe that in order for Jewish organizations to attract those on the periphery, they must lower “barriers” to participation. One congregation in Cleveland, Ohio, has gone so far as to eliminate the physical walls of the synagogue altogether. As reported in the Cleveland Jewish News, “Informal study groups, Shabbat observances in members’ homes, and doing myriad acts of tsedakah and outreach to others will be the cornerstones of The Shul.”
The rabbi of The Shul, Rabbi Edward Sukol, aims to create experiences that are responsive to the specific needs expressed by each segment of the population. For instance, he has found that synagogue life and traditional services are not at the “center of religious identity” for the baby boomer population in Cleveland. Rabbi Sukol is trying to help them find new points of connection with participatory and interactive celebrations such as an intimate potluck Shabbat each Friday night in someone’s home, complete with singing, prayer, and learning. The Shul also seeks to be open and inclusive of interfaith families. Rabbi Sukol sought the help of a local minister to help him coordinate study sessions for interfaith families. Recognizing that building genuine, personalized relationships is the key to motivating people’s engagement, The Shul seeks to provide each participant with “individualized gateway experiences.”
Rabbi Sukol insists that “this non-traditional approach to Judaism is just another option to live a meaningful Jewish life that speaks to our members’ hearts, spirits and souls.” In other words, it is an augmentation not a replacement for physical synagogues, which continue to provide great meaning to many Jews. While the concept of a synagogue-without-walls may not be entirely new, it is still certainly an endeavor that will add tremendous value to the Cleveland community, as it promises to reach out to those on the periphery and share Jewish experiences with those who have not otherwise been able to access all that Judaism has to offer.