Home for the (High) Holidays

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shul shopping

Ryan and I will be spiritually home for the holidays this year. After 18 months of shul shopping, we’ve officially joined a new synagogue. When we left our last one after four years of membership, our exit was so contentious and disappointing, we expected it would take much longer before we were ready to make a commitment to another community. But this summer, circumstance has unexpectedly led us back into congregational life.

We left the synagogue where I became a Jew and where Ryan began his own Jewish journey because we never felt as welcomed or included as our previous shul’s marketing messages and leadership claimed that diverse members should feel. In the end, we realized the best treatment went to young couples with children in the religious school who could guarantee the synagogue a long-term source of membership dues. Complaining about that was always met with an apology, but never any real change. (See contentious, above.)

Continuing an eternal Jewish stereotype, the last full service I attended at our old shul was the one where I chanted Torah for the first time last April. After that, it was into the desert, where we decided to stay for a while to decide just what we wanted out of our next synagogue–and what we didn’t. We spent out last Rosh Hashanah at Disneyland. We spent out last Yom Kippur at home.

We eventually came up with a list of things that we believe any congregational Jew has a right to expect from the synagogue with which they choose to affiliate. Among them (though it’s worth clicking through above to read the whole list):

  • The ability to have an actual relationship with our rabbi that is marked by fairness, friendship, respect, compassion, and love.
  • The ability to seek guidance from our rabbi without unnecessary or gratuitous judgment, closed-mindedness, or criticism.
  • A rabbi who respects the beliefs of non-Jewish visitors at worship services and who would never stand on the bimah and tell them why their faiths are “wrong.”
  • Welcome and respect for Jews and Jewish families of all types, all colors, and all sexualities.
  • Respect for Jews-by-choice, their right to define their own identities, and their key impact on Judaism both historically and in the present day.
  • Holiday and educational programming throughout the year that consistently encompasses all types of Jews including most especially adult Jews, single Jews, and Jews without children.
  • An honest and open board of directors that shares its minutes, decisions, and activities regularly and widely with all members of the congregation.
  • A celebration of Shabbat and the worship service as central elements of congregational life.
  • And a congregation that understands they deserve all of these things.

We gave ourselves lots of time to look around and did not spend every weekend shul shopping. We encountered less-then-welcoming congregations along the way. Oddly enough, at first we thought the synagogue we just joined was among them. After our life plan this year became a short-term goal to move back to New York City to again be a part of my miraculously reunited family, we pretty much put the idea of joining a new synagogue in our back pockets. We figured we’d take it out again once we were ready to unpack our belongings in Forest Hills, Queens.

But then Ryan was headhunted for yet another job of a lifetime in Chicago. (How does he do that?) And to support him in his suddenly longer-term Chicago career, I decided to launch my new strategic communications consulting firm, Benami Media. And we quickly realized that unless we changed our minds about affiliating, we would spend another set of High Holy Days and year of Jewish holidays at home, and delay even longer the continuation or Ryan’s journey to join the Jewish people.

We figured that any synagogue can have an off night and decided to give a second chance to one of the ones that we had crossed off our list earlier in the year. We’re glad we did. Is it a perfect fit? No. Does it feel like a synagogue that will meet us halfway if we make the mutual effort? For the first time in years, absolutely. We didn’t expect to get that message as immediately as we did. But it’s an enormous blessing and we’re grateful for it.

In the short while since we joined our new congregation, Ryan’s conversion journey has already begun to move forward (representing an amazing level of rabbinic responsiveness we weren’t prepared for), and we’re both staring like deer in headlights into the long lists of ways to volunteer and participate in adult-education opportunities that we could only dream about before. It’s also a blessing that in 11 days, as Rosh Hashanah eve kicks off the Days of Awe, we’ll be using the Reform movement’s brand-new High Holy Day prayerbook, the radically inclusive Mishkan Hanefesh, as members of the synagogue whose senior rabbi edited the volume. (For liberal Jews like me who like to swim in the deep end of the liturgy pool, that’s kind of mind-blowing.)

Some of you have already gleaned from that that we have joined Chicago’s Temple Sholom. We’re grateful for the awesome welcome we’ve received. We look forward to being happy, sad, uplifted, and challenged there. We don’t pretend we’ll be there forever. But for now, it’s nice to no longer feel like we’re the only ones valuing our adult Jewish journeys. Every Jew has a right to expect their synagogue to support them on that journey. Thanks for making that absolutely clear to us, Temple Sholom.

It’s nice to meet you, too.

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