When I was growing up, my family did not have much of a connection to a synagogue. We were Jewish in our own way, but for a variety of reasons, we didn’t go to services much. There were two non-Orthodox congregations in my home town, and we flip-flopped back and forth between them. Neither one was a perfect fit — liked the music, didn’t like the music, loved the Rabbi, didn’t feel comfortable with the Rabbi, felt inauthentic here, there, and everywhere. There was always something. And with music being the family business, Shabbat was often a work day. The simple truth is that we were twice-a-year Jews. We went infrequently, and as a result we were strangers, even when we were dues-paying members.
My overriding feeling when going to synagogue in those days was one of alienation. From lack of experience, I wasn’t familiar with the liturgy, and I was sure that everyone else knew just how to be. But it wasn’t just about knowing when to stand up and sit down, when to mumble and when to be quiet — that I could fake pretty well — there was also a feeling that everyone else was having a holy experience and I wasn’t. One time, while we were visiting friends in northern Michigan, we went to synagogue with them and although I was the same un-learned child there, I felt something. I never forgot it. It was this little clapboard synagogue, a small congregation with a passionate, soft-spoken Rabbi. Something about it spoke my language.
Every now and then in my childhood, I’d overhear grownups talking about how they could go to Shabbat services anywhere in the world and feel like they were at home. I longed for that experience.
I remember traveling in Europe during my college dropout months and visiting synagogues in various places, always with the same feeling: This is not quite mine.
Eventually I found a Reform congregation that felt pretty good, and Bill and I joined. This is the place where Bill converted, where our two sons were welcomed into the covenant, where our community of helpers was first grounded when we ran into financial trouble three years ago. The clergy there is wonderful, the kindness of the people cannot be overstated, the programming is interesting. And yet recently I have had some less-optimal experiences there. Although I continue to adore the clergy, we’ve had some other personnel changes that have diminished the services for me, in particular the departure of an incredibly charismatic musician/youth educator a few years back. The atmosphere in prayer is somewhat self-conscious: people don’t sing loudly, they don’t move around, they seem sometimes to be just trudging through the service as if by rote. Also, I feel more and more that there is a mechitza between adults and children at this Temple. I’ve been discouraged from attending certain things because I would have had my children along, even though I had arranged it such that they would be attended during the more “serious” bits and with me during the sit-around-and-sing bits. I once got scolded by the custodian for allowing the boys to be in the library unattended, even though they were not doing anything wrong.
Meanwhile, with Akiva’s school, we’ve gone twice on retreat and found ourselves in the midst of a dynamic, musical, passionate Jewish life, the kind of Judaism that sings “yala lala la!” and breaks into spontaneous dancing. I want more of that.
Today at Rosh Hashana services, I felt something I never expected to feel at my synagogue: an echo of my childhood alienation. I wanted to experience Rosh Hashana as a day of searching and reflection but I didn’t. The strongest part was doing Tashlich in the rain. (Note to G-d: the sunshine just at the end was a nice touch. Subtler than a rainbow, but still effective.) The regular morning service carried with it a feeling of the dutiful. I don’t want dutiful prayer anymore. I want to sing out loud, and clap when the rhythm asks for it. I want to move and be moved.
Time for some more purposeful shul shopping.