I’ve heard it said that there’s no mention of the synagogue in the Torah. So where and when did it originate? It’s hard to imagine “Judaism” (at least as we know it today) without synagogues!
The purpose of the synagogue is to provide a venue to facilitate and enhance the Biblical obligation of prayer by adding a communal element.
From Moses’ times until the restoration of the Second Temple, we fulfilled the obligation to pray daily by composing our own prayers, and praying privately.
We also made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to experience the public services that were conducted in the Holy Temple.
After the restoration of the Second Temple (352 BCE), the Great Assembly2, led by Ezra, instituted the Kaddish, Kedushah, Barechu, and the rest of the standardized communal service (requiring the participation of a minyan or quorum of ten) as well as the obligation for individuals to participate in these services.
The primary public worship experience remained the journey to Jerusalem to participate in and be inspired by the Temple service.
When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 69 CE, the only place for public worship remained the synagogue, which then acquired increased importance as the center of Jewish communal life.
The primary focus of Judaism, however, has always been the life of each individual and their home and family, lived in a strong and mutually responsible community. In fact, when a Jewish community starts from scratch, building a synagogue is not the first item on its “to do” list. As set by Jewish law, the priorities as far as setting up communal institutions should be:
1) A mikvah
2) Jewish schooling for children
3) A charity fund
4) A synagogue
Of course, people can—and do—get together anywhere to pray communally.