It's strangely difficult to me to be at a service at our synagogue without our rabbi leading. It makes me kind of sad and feels "better than nothing" but not the same. So since Temple Tikvah was only the second synagogue I had ever set foot in in my entire life, I have used these rare opportunities to make the best out of the situation by sating my curiosity over what other Shabbat experiences are like.
When sharing this with the temple president yesterday, who had asked me where we've been and showed great interest in my response, she asked me if I'd like to be on the Religious Affairs committee, because they discuss service structure etc. She said they would love to have my input on what I've noted in other synagogues and services. I was so honored that I immediately said yes, I'd love to. I can't explain how this made me feel like a real, recognized Jew for my own temple to feel I could have a valuable contribution and want to include me in the conversation.
So here I will make notes for myself to bring there. I had planned on writing about my Shabbat experiences anyway, but put it off and may never have gotten to it, so this is a good motivator. I will not use the temple names, as I may be critical of some aspects and would never want anyone to inadvertently stumble upon this blog and see that about their own congregation. My intention is to learn and compare, not to offend others. And I also have the extreme bias of being totally in love with my own temple, so that any other experience inevitably leaves me feeling homesick, and that's an unfair perspective.
Before our Alaska cruise in June, we went to a Shabbat service in Seattle, which was my first temple experience outside of NYC/Long Island.
The temple was on a huge city block with quite a lot of lawn for an urban area. The building was sprawling and had someone guarding one door, which was a little unsettling. The synagogue was built in the late 1800s, which was AWESOME. Unfortunately, though, we didn't get to see the old sanctuary, as they use the smaller, more casual and comfortable one for regular services. I wish we'd been bold enough to peek into the main sanctuary to see what it looked like. The one we were in was pretty modern and bare, but comfortable, and the Ark was pretty.
I was surprised that the crowd was a bit younger. Our congregation is mostly middle-aged and older - I can count one hand the number of people under 35 who attend regularly. It ends up that there were several students visiting from the university a few blocks away. But there was also a lesbian couple and a few other young hip people who clearly come pretty regularly.
The rabbi was a young married man whose three- or four-year-old daughter sat in the front row. He was pretty personable and seemed to have a good rapport with the congregants. I enjoyed his D'Var Torah, as he very neatly linked the Torah portion to current events and modern life, much as our rabbi does. He was pretty cool. There are two campuses and several rabbis among them, and the "youth rabbi" was present this evening also. Someone who had helped us find the entrance outdoors later introduced us to him, even though we had said we were just visiting. He didn't know we were just visiting, and was very enthusiastic as he worked to engage us until we told him we were here on vacation. I'm not sure what a "youth rabbi" does, or where the age cut-off is for "youth," but he clearly knew a lot of the young people in attendance so it must work as an engagement strategy.
This synagogue had no cantor, or at least not that night. The rabbi was musically accompanied by a late-adolescent boy who helped lead the music with guitar but didn't sing. The rabbi did all the singing and was not very loud about it so we were really just hearing ourselves. His voice was average so I suppose he didn't want to showcase himself too much, but I'm just used to a strong, powerful voice leading the congregation in song. I loved the way they sang "Mi Chamocha." It was less upbeat, softer and very moving. That very next week, our cantor led the song in that same way! Nicole and I immediately looked at each other and lit up.
This was an overall positive experience, and if we lived in Seattle and had been trying out this temple, we would have come back for more.
Last Friday C and I did a double-feature (Nicole just went to the first one). The first we went to was in an affluent neighborhood. The building was like a piece of art, just architecturally gorgeous, and on a huge lot with very beautiful and well-maintained gardens. We didn't get to see the main sanctuary because the service was being held in the courtyard that night, which was an exciting idea to us and was why I left work a few minutes early to make it out there for 6:30. (Our services are at 8:00...Shabbat doesn't even begin during a 6:30 summer service, but it's more in demand by people with young kids and those who want to go out on a Friday evening.) It was nice in theory, and the courtyard was beautiful with an incredible cool breeze and not-too-bright clear sunny sky, but it was jam-packed and the speakers weren't set up in a way that could reach everyone. We had a lot of difficulty hearing the rabbi from the back.
The people were definitely upper-class. They were wearing fancy clothes, the women had a very "Desperate Housewives" look to them, and we passed three Lexuses in a row to get to a parking spot. Affluent people should have the same opportunity to worship together, and it shouldn't have been such a conspicuous issue to me, but it made me uncomfortable. I felt very self-conscious and missed my own congregation with many working-class and middle-class folk who are all struggling to get by in a high-cost-of-living area. That doesn't mean no one in my synagogue has money, but there is definitely a diverse range, whereas I felt very isolated and alienated in this group. I was impressed initially at how many people showed up for a regular Friday night service, but then noticed that so many of them were disengaged. The participation in song, prayer, and chanting was very scattered, and the woman next to me was playing on her phone inside her purse the whole time as if no one would notice because it wasn't out on her lap. I didn't feel at all connected to the people here, though clearly they feel some draw to one another and to the temple.
This congregation has two rabbis, and the non-senior rabbi led this service. He was a young man and, to us, seemed disappointingly disconnected in his leading of the service. I guess I would think a young rabbi would still be excited and passionate, but he was kind of monotone and it felt like he was going through the motions. Also his D'Var Torah felt lazy. He threw out a few verses from the week's Torah portion and then asked people to talk about what it means to them. That was it. There was nothing of himself or his own thinking in there, and it felt like he didn't have to put any work into it. It felt like he was guiding a Torah study, though even with that, our rabbi adds her own input for us to learn from, debate, wrestle with. Also, it was a difficult forum for an interactive discussion because we couldn't hear anyone and it was hard for the rabbi to navigate through the large crowd to get to people with the microphone (which didn't help much). The content itself was about not forgetting that there are needy people out there, and it was so directed at a people so privileged that they CAN forget about the needy, that it made us feel awkward and almost spotlighted. "Hi, the three of us struggle paycheck to paycheck trying to figure out how to afford life, and also collect tzedakah with what little we can." I guess this is a sermon this group needed and was relevant to them, but it was uncomfortable for us where all of this isn't so far-removed from our reality.
The congregation has two cantors, a male and a female, who sang together. Their voices were absolutely beautiful together, with some very well-rehearsed and unique harmonies. I was totally moved by their performances, but also frustrated that they sang the songs so uniquely that none of us could sing WITH them. Singing is such a major part of prayer and worship in Judaism, and Shabbat felt strange without being able to engage in that. The focus was on spotlighting these two beautiful voices and not on having the congregation join together in song.
Taken as a nice, breezy outdoor concert with fellow Jews, it was a nice experience. But as a Shabbat service, it lacked a lot - it lacked a substantive and enlightening D'Var Torah, an engaging rabbi, and friendly and relatable congregants. I would only go back if it were for some very special type of service AND my rabbi was not leading our own.
At 8:00 that same evening, we went to a nearby Reconstructionist synagogue. I have been eager to experience Reconstructionist Judaism ever since I learned about it in my conversion class, where we read about all the different movements. It had sounded like something so perfect to me that, for a moment, I second-guessed my decision to affiliate with the Reform movement. I knew I could always attend Reconstructionist services after conversion, that converting within the Reform movement didn't tie me down (unless I want to be Orthodox), but I already loved my rabbi and my temple. Part of me was curious and wanted to experience Reconstructionism, but another part of me felt threatened by exposure to other movements. I'm now secure enough in my love for Reform Judaism, and my identity as a Jew who can choose to belong to and attend services at my current temple regardless of what movement I most closely identify with. So when C suggested checking out a Reconstructionist service, I was completely on board.
I have been drawn to Reconstructionism (is that a word?) because it was described in one of my books as a movement that is just as socially progressive and liberal as Reform Judaism but with more traditional levels of religious observance. That sounded like a dream of a combination to me - the best of both worlds! But the stricter adherence to me read as "more traditional," and there is warmth and comfort in tradition. However, this is not how I experienced this temple. It was a very modern structure, with a stark and modern sanctuary. Like at our temple, the smaller summer services are held in a smaller room to conserve air conditioning, but we peeked into the sanctuary afterward. It had individual seats instead of pews, and a strange new-agey looking Ark that was like a carpeted circle with a spacey design. Even the Judaica around the synagogue had a modern twist to them. Kind of cool in an artsy way, but I wouldn't want that to be my environment on a regular basis. It was just too modern. When I later showed Nicole the picture I'd taken of it, she said it looked like an Ikea temple!
(That's C up there.)
(yes, that's actually an Ark...and it's carpeted.)
The people in attendance were much more our kind of crowd than those at Temple Rich. They seemed very down-to-earth, companionable with one another, and connected to their rabbi and temple. Out of a small crowd of maybe 20 or 25 people, there was a gay-male couple with their daughter and a young college-age lesbian. The rest were older, much like our congregation. There was much conversation (sometimes at inappropriate times) and I have no doubt that we would have been warmly approached had we stayed for the oneg.
The rabbi was a woman probably in her late thirties or very early forties. She seemed very connected to her congregation, clearly beloved, but as C said, did not seem very holy. She seemed like just any other congregant who happened to be leading the service. I am used to our rabbi who is so clearly into every service, very much feeling God's presence and the joy of Shabbat. She is just very openly spiritual, and that's something I can relate to. This rabbi didn't give that off. She led the service in a way that any other experienced congregant could do. There wasn't that special something extra that I feel a rabbi should bring to their role. Also, she was inappropriately dressed, in my opinion, which made it hard to take her seriously because I was so appalled. She wore a short dress that was sheer so you could see the outline of her black bra, and it was unbuttoned all the way down through her cleavage so you could see the sides of her breasts. Then she had a necklace draping right out over the top button, spilling out from between her breasts, which she toyed with throughout the service, bringing your attention right to that area. The outfit was topped off with sky-high heels. I'm really not trying to be judgmental, and I know that male rabbis don't suffer this same kind of scrutiny. But God forgive me, I guess I have taken for granted the classiness of our own rabbi. I just shouldn't be seeing your bare breasts bouncing as you sing. It's a problem to me.
I also had the same issue with her as I did at Temple Rich, where the D'Var Torah felt lazy. I don't even know if you can call it a D'Var Torah, because I'm not sure it was related to God or the Torah in any way. She recited something she'd read from a poet about feeling most white when against a multi-colored background, and engaged congregants in a group discussion about what this means for each of them. She didn't say what it meant to her, didn't expound on anyone's responses very much, didn't relate it to the Torah portion. She just quoted a sentence and let people run with it. And run, and run, and run. It was well past 9:00 and people were still responding, and she didn't seem able to redirect them or cut it off. Again, this is something our rabbi is quite skilled in, as she has to be mindful of time in Torah study and even in Shabbat services.
A sweet, young, pretty preschool-teacher-like woman played guitar and sang a little (though clearly was not a cantor), and sometimes the tunes were a little off but overall it was okay. I don't know if they regularly have a cantor or not, but this accompaniment would have been sufficient if the guitarist/singer had been able to keep the tunes so that we could all sing along consistently without suddenly being thrown off by going awkwardly flat. I'm aware that I'm being pretty critical here, as we do have the luxury of an intense and beautiful cantor and not every temple can afford that. If you aren't able to have a cantor, this woman's role was helpful and nice, but maybe she and the rabbi should just practice some of the tunes together a bit more so that the congregants can follow along better.
I'm not so enthralled with Reconstructionism, as the modern feel of everything was actually the opposite of what I expected. Although since I don't know if it's just specific to this temple, I'd be willing to try one somewhere else also. If I was Reconstructionist, knowing how very few synagogues there are to explore, if this was close to me I would make it my temple home. The warm community and the lack of Reconstructionist options would assist me in making this choice. But I'm glad I'm Reform and have more options and have my own temple home, because the service was lacking in the intelligent, insightful, creative, and spiritual intensity that I am used to at home. I also don't think I'd feel as comfortable in the huge, cavernous, stark regular sanctuary that is used most of the year. Overall a bit too modern and out-of-touch for my liking.
Last night our rabbi was back, and we were so ridiculously homesick for her and our temple. But next week she will be gone again, and we will return to the first synagogue we ever attended, which we didn't end up staying at because of how far it was from our Queens apartment. There will be some nostalgia in that which will help me get through til our rabbi is back again, and then holy crap, the High Holy Days are right around the corner!