If You Knew Emanuel Congregation

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UPDATE (4/5/18): In almost a decade and a half, I have never taken down a post on my blog and I won’t start now. But I did rewrite one. This one. Read on to learn why…

Four years ago, this post chronicled the climax of my exit from my home synagogue, Chicago’s lakefront Emanuel Congregation–the beloved community in which I joined the Jewish people. At the time, I thought I was telling a story of lack of acceptance and inclusion on the part of my shul. But I know now the story I was really telling was about my own lack of acceptance and inclusion of the right of others simply to be themselves. When you think you’re the only one with a kosher story to tell, you lose out on so much. For four years, I lost out on my home synagogue.

This wasn’t the only post I wrote at the time regarding personal turbulence at my old shul. After a long-needed change of heart, or as I more honestly refer to it, “getting my head out of my ass,” I wrote this teshuvah public apology post and linked to it from a new disclaimer atop those other posts. I did not take them down, because I think it’s important to know where you’ve been in order to understand where you’re going.

But this was the one that did damage. Enough for leadership there to come to refer to it as “THE Post.” The agonizing one and only. The one that so angrily and vociferously went there, it ended up among the top search rankings for my old shul and, as a result, made it difficult for them to attract new members and challenging for them to find a new rabbi.

The thing is, what I wrote could probably be written by almost anyone in almost any synagogue anywhere, ever. Drama happens. People are like that. Synagogues are like that. Life is like that. I had a need to be heard and so did my shul. The hope and guiding practice should always be to aim for understanding and connection and learning and healing.

Reading and re-reading the former version of this post this week, I remembered the feeling of staunchly digging into only a single side. But unlike before, I’m finally able to allow myself to see the other side, too. How many times, how clearly, and in how many ways people who cared about me tried to ask me to check myself. Just step back a little from my relentless, rageful precipice so I could actually get the message.

Unfortunately, my shul’s love, acceptance, inclusion, and basic goodness ran far deeper than I in my brokenness was able at the time to credit it. So what I did, instead, is take a disagreement among members of the beloved community and go for the jugular. I accused my shul of turning away from its role as a sacred gathering place. I broke the hearts of many close friends. I denigrated the board. I publicly humiliated my cantor.

I called my rabbi an asshole.

(I know. I know.)

These are things you can recant, but you can’t ever undo. Once that pillow is ripped open and shaken into the wind, you’ll never, ever be able to gather up all its feathers again.

But if I may be so bold, I still have a few things to say about my old congregation.

They love to sing. They love to drash. They love to take the Torah out on Shabbat. They love to wake up at the crack of dawn and volunteer at Sunday school.

They love to welcome new faces, and they do it with honesty, warmth, and grace. They love to ensure new faces and old are stuffed with cake at every oneg.

They love to guide Jewish children into engaged Jewish adults. They love to guide conversion candidates into engaged Jews-by-choice.

They love to send kids to OSRUI. In fact, they love every opportunity for OSRUI, and if you were ever up there with them, you would, too.

In all of the places I’ve been since I left, they are still the most emotionally honest, radically welcoming group of Jews I have ever known.

They will embrace you and drive you crazy. You will love them for it. You will miss them when you’re away.

They have a remarkable bravery to offer and share acceptance and love. And forgiveness as well.

There is, however, one thing they aren’t. They are no longer my former shul. And if you think a congregational family re-embracing a shmuck like me is hard to believe, then you clearly haven’t met the people of Emanuel Congregation.

You should. You really should.

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