In Judaism, a synagogue is a place of worship, a place for religious study, and a social center.
History: The Temple
The original center for Jewish worship was the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Temple was built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, which disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, is one of history's greatest mysteries.
The Temple was rebuilt by Herod in the 1st century BCE. This building, known as the Second Temple, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It has yet to be rebuilt.
The Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple today. It was not a part of the temple itself; it is the western retaining wall built around the temple area. Nevertheless, it is the holiest site in Judaism, and an important place for pilgrimage, gathering and prayer. The Western Wall, or Kotel in Hebrew, is better known as the "Wailing Wall" for the lamentation of the Temple's destruction that occurs there.
Although "synagogue" is the most common term for the Jewish place of assembly, not all Jews use this term. Reform Jews refer to it as "the temple," which reflects their view that the synagogue is a permanent replacement for the Temple. They believe that even if it were possible, there would be no need to rebuild the Temple or resume sacrifices, so the synagogue is the only temple that will ever be needed. Some non-Reform Jews find this term offensive, feeling that it lacks reverence for the true Temple.
In Orthodox Judaism, the house of worship is called the shul, a Yiddish word derived from the German for "school." Conservative Jews use the word "synagogue" (from the Greek sunagoge, "assembly," the same root as "synod"). When in doubt, "synagogue" is the best term to use, as it is the least offensive and most widely understood.
The Hebrew term for synagogue is beit k'nesset ("House of Assembly"). K'nesset is also the name of Israel's legislative body, the equivalent of Congress or Parliament.
Purpose of the Synagogue
The primary purpose of the synagogue is as a house of prayer (beit tefilah). Although Jewish prayer also takes place outside of the synagogue, group prayer is very important in Judaism. Certain prayers may only be said in the presence of a minyan, or a group of at least 10 adults (10 men in Orthodox shuls).
As suggested by the Orthodox term shul, another of the synagogue's primary functions is as a house of study (beit midrash). It is the place where Jewish children receive their religious education. But education does not end with the bar or bat mitzvah - adult study is supported by the library of sacred texts housed within many synagogues.
Finally, like the houses of worship of most faiths, the synagogue also functions as a social gathering place, a town hall for community events, and a headquarters for social and charity work.