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What is a Shul?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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A shul is a structure dedicated to Jewish worship, typically including an area for prayer, offices for shul staff, and sometimes community rooms for studying and other activities. Shuls are also known as synagogues or temples, depending on the sect of Judaism to which someone belongs. The term shul is most commonly used by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. For Jewish communities, the shul is often the center of community activity and organizations, serving as a place of worship, a gathering place, and sometimes a school as well. Shuls also serve as central distribution point for charity, giving out blankets, food, and other necessities to the needy.

The word shul is Yiddish, and it is derived from a German word which means “school.” The use of shul is meant to remind people of the role of the shul in education, as people of the Jewish faith believe that religious education is an ongoing experience, and they are encouraged to study religious texts throughout their lives. Many shuls maintain a library of religious texts and other materials of interest which members of the community are welcome to use, and some also offer instruction and assistance with educational materials, for people who are interested in some guidance.

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Typically, a shul is run by a group of lay people, and it is often supported with the use of annual fees. People who cannot afford annual fees are of course welcome to attend services in the shul. The lay board handles the day to day administration of the shul, and often they hire a rabbi to lead prayer services and provide religious education and guidance, although a rabbi is not required, and lay people do sometimes lead prayer meetings and other events.

All shuls have an assortment of religious items including an ark for holding the Torah, a reading platform, a lantern, and a candelabrum. Depending on the sect to which the members of the shul belong, there may be other items and features as well, such as separated seating for men and women in Orthodox synagogues. Some shuls also maintain a kitchen to make catering community events easier, and the structure may be attached to a school in some communities.

People who are not of the Jewish faith are certainly welcome to visit a shul and attend services there, as long as they remain respectful. As a general rule, one should dress nicely, while men and married women should cover their heads. Many shuls provide head coverings for people who do not have them. Prayer books in Hebrew and a native language can often be found in a shul, allowing people who do not speak Hebrew to follow along, and people should participate in as much as the service as they feel comfortable with. In many shuls, people are also happy to answer questions about aspects of the service which arouse curiosity or confusion.

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