Shul Shopping or Stopping

Mishkan TFilah

The religious life of a new Jew sometimes swings like a pendulum. We spend the first few months–and as I now know, years–finding our Jewish comfort zone. Over the past three years, I’ve explored laying tefillin, wearing tzitzit, davenning three times a day, adopting brachot before eating and drinking, making challah every Friday, and attending services every Shabbat. And of course, there’s that full-time yarmulke.

Judaism is a living tradition that we experience in different ways throughout our lives. Some of these practices continue in my life and are very dear to me. Others happen less often or not at all, anymore. My experience is not much different from that of other converts I know. Up to now, though, I found it interesting that some newish Jews-by-choice spend a lot of time trying to find a synagogue. I always assumed you’d just stick around awhile at the shul where you first joined the Jewish people.

Except lately I’ve found myself refusing to leave my Friday roast chicken behind to attend services.

I could say that my synagogue doesn’t speak to me anymore. That I’m often the youngest person in the sanctuary, out of only a handful of people there at all. That younger potential members frequently come and go and my shul thinks it’s their fault for leaving instead of ours for not offering anything better than a tired 1950s program of activities when we offer any activities at all.

That my rabbi doesn’t get me, doesn’t connect well with other congregants, doesn’t allow room for parts of the liturgy that fall outside their comfort zone, and is paid too much for a shul of our challenged finances. That members don’t seem interested in connecting in real life beyond the synagogue walls.

That more than anything, the shul feels like it’s a b’nai mitzvah factory, and pays way more attention to the needs of families who disappear the moment the reception ends instead of to the needs of regular worshipers who often feel left out. That everyone says they want change but no one ever really supports it happening.

Or I could tell you, instead, that the above is actually a summary of the regular complaints I’ve read from fellow Jews about their own synagogues over the past three years. (Actually, I did complain about all those b’nai mitzvah.) Ecclesiastes really nailed it about there being nothing new under the sun. Absolutely some of the above does apply to my shul and does drag me down about it, but that’s pretty much the Jewish baseline when it comes to synagogue affiliation.

Still, after an almost unbroken record of attendance at Friday night worship services (and often Saturday morning services, too), for the past few months Ryan and I, both, have found ourselves exploring lots of Friday nights at home. I’ve long played Ina Garten to Ryan’s  Jeffrey, laying down homemade spreads of roast chicken, vegetables, rice, and challah every erev Shabbat. But lately, we’ve been discovering the joy of watching our candles burn all the way down after dinner instead of hurrying to services.

We’ve also thought about shul shopping to widen our Friday night comfort zone. We probably won’t always live down the block from our current synagogue (especially if we move to Los Angeles), and there’s a wonderful diversity of liberal synagogues within convenient reach of us in Chicago, both Reform and Conservative. But for now we’re kind of content with singing our way into the Sabbath on our own and checking in with our shul from time to time.

If I had to zero in on the essence of what’s going on, I’d say I think we’re looking for something more compelling on Friday night than the same old same old. It’s a common theme for young-adult Jews, but I think it applies to converts of any age. We love experiencing the life in our tradition, but our synagogues sometimes feel like they’re pickled in amber.

I used to complain about Jews who bailed on institutional Judaism and synagogue life. But at a certain point you come to the conclusion that your life and your Jewish journey are what’s important. That’s not to say that Peoplehood and community aren’t important. But you can and should honor and experience them in a multitude of places, anyway.

If I had a nickel for every time a long-term member of my shul told me that. Maybe we’re all a lot further along into Rabbi Benay Lappe’s crash of contemporary Judaism than we realize. So much for hoping for a viable rabbinic career in a few years, for that matter.

I’m not stressing about it, though. I find that the most surprising part of all.

So for now, I’m content checking in down the block from time to time to see if I feel compelled to come back. I’m content with my Abraham Joshua Heschel-style, domestic candles-and-conversation Shabbatot. And I’m curious to continue exploring.

This Chabad blog post suggests Jews always have excuses for why they don’t go to synagogue, but never have excuses for why they do attend services. The idea is that a Jew wants to be a Jew–we don’t need excuses to be actively Jewish. I agree with that last part in the way that it’s hard to explain to non-Jews, with the Jets theme playing in my head, “When you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew all the way, from your first cigarette, to your last dyin’ day…”

But I’m not sure I agree anymore with the idea that Jews need excuses for not attending synagogue. Not when, after three years at the same shul, I’m still trying to figure out why I should keep going. That’s a universal drama, of course. I know many people who have gone through similar wrestling matches with their relationships with their churches and Christian congregations. I know my experience is nothing out of the ordinary.

I just always thought I was too old to be a post-denominational Jew. Who knew?

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