When my husband and I considered where to settle down, we had a handful of requirements beyond gainful employment — a good hospital, a place where you didn’t have to know about block heaters for cars in the winter (warm, thank you very much), a landscape with natural water beyond playas, and a Jewish community.

We chose Auburn-Opelika.

One of the first things we did was join Congregation Beth Shalom. The physical footprint of Beth Shalom is tiny — less than 1,400 square feet — but its footprint on our lives is huge. It’s been a hub for our family for 11 years. As we affectionately say, our community is small but mighty. 

Synagogues survive through formal membership: If we wish to have a thriving Jewish community, we must commit to being supporters of that community. Synagogues don’t pass a plate, nor do Jewish congregants tithe in the Biblical sense to Levite priests (who no longer exist). Instead, we ensure the continuation of the synagogue through dues and other donations, especially around the High Holy Days.

To me, having a synagogue is having a place for community. I may not know everyone well, but on the whole, these are the folks who understand and accept me, even in my irreverent or overwhelmed moments.

It’s having a place for my children to learn their heritage and connect. It’s having a sacred space. It’s sanctuary. It’s learning to reach out, to build and grow together, to give back.

And it’s comfort and direction in life’s unexpected, sometimes even tragic moments. We most need our synagogue when we least anticipate it, and it must be there.

For it to be there then, we need to support it in the other, more comfortable moments, in those moments where its presence seems less pressing. Ever since returning to Judaism over 20 years ago, I have been a member of a synagogue, even as a college student.

Across small communities, especially in the South, synagogues are shuttering. Congregation Beth Shalom knows this well. We will warmly welcome you as you walk through our doors, doors donated by a congregation that no longer exists. 

Your prayers and contemplations will be lighted by rays streaming through stained glass windows that once graced another synagogue, long gone. 

We have the good fortune to exist in a place that attracts diversity, with a university, a hospital, an auto industry. But even so, without membership, we too would be shuttered.

That lesson was driven home to me this summer when I joined the synagogue board, when I got to see the actual bills for keeping the lights on, so to speak. And briefly, after our treasurer moved, I even wrote the checks.

I understand more concretely now why we need to prioritize being members. We will continue to do so.

We’ve never felt we had to find a large synagogue, just a great community. And we have. Our goal is to keep it thriving. Whatever your community, participate, support it, keep it thriving.

 

Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. She is also a cat herder — a.k.a. parent of two, spouse, sometime musician, dog wrangler and juggler of what life tosses her way.

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