Off with the Show

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I was on the bimah with my synagogue choir one Shabbat evening a few weeks ago, when I knew. The more things change, the more people stay the same. That sinking knowingness that no matter what people say about themselves, it’s actions that really matter. I was mid-note in a song we’d practiced for months. We were singing it out of order because yet again our Friday evening service had become a train wreck. Just like the train wreck services of five years ago, when no matter the best of institutional intentions, Erev Shabbat services ended up feeling like afterthoughts.

I don’t know why Reform synagogues in Chicago (God, I hope it’s only in Chicago) do this–specifically this. When the going gets tough, when the week gets long, when the Sunday school crowd ends up larger than the Sabbath evening crowd, when the b’nai mitzvah season is over, somehow, inexorably, Friday evening becomes a shadow of itself. Songs shorten. Rubrics fall away. Sermons swerve. No clergy on the planet can hide being weary of leading a congregation on its Sabbath. And it’s okay to be weary. But it’s not okay not to do anything about it.

I remember five years ago when Friday evening last became an institutional afterthought. I–and eventually Ryan–would dread going to shul on Erev Shabbat. We never knew how uncomfortable services would be, how unhappy or checked out clergy would feel, how spent and dejected we would feel afterwards. In Judaism, the Sabbath is meant to be a time of joy and contemplation. The peaceful end to the work week, and an entrance into the ephemeral. Jews around the world happily anticipate its arrival every week. So when your Friday night services are so askew that you start to dread Shabbat, something is terribly wrong.

When I came back to Emanuel last year on my great apology tour, it seemed for sure that things had changed. Everyone was so gung ho about community and holidays and Sabbaths and services. Even though finances are challenging right now, for months the institutional spirit was amazing. (Not for nothing, just read the post that immediately preceded this one.)

And then it wasn’t. Just like our previous synagogue, everything suddenly seemed to turn on a dime with no explanation. And once again Ryan and I found ourselves wondering why Friday nights had become lifeless, and uncomfortable, and tone-deaf again. Like before, we spoke up. Unlike before, this time we weren’t the only Friday night worshipers who spoke up–and repeatedly so. But exactly like before, yet again, no one listened. Yet again, we watched regulars fall away and stop coming. Yet again, we started dreading the Sabbath’s arrival–every time we thought about the discomfort of Friday night that might await us at shul.

To guard the sanctity of our Sabbath observance, eventually we both stopped attending as often as we used to. Ryan still gives the place the benefit of the doubt. He loves being in the choir. He loves the feeling of community. He’ll attend when he feels so moved.

I guess I’m not as charitable. I will never understand why Reform synagogues can become so aggressively ambivalent about leading their congregations into Shabbat. I will never understand why when that happens, no one on the bimah even notices it happening. Or cares? Because that’s how it comes across, every time.

But one person on the bimah that choir night cared. I did. This time, clergy had swerved the evening so far out of its lane that the order of service became confused, and one of the songs we as a choir had spent months practicing was blown past, as if all our hard work didn’t matter. So we sang the next song, instead. But the choir leader was so thrown, we were started in the wrong key. And then glared at for following their cue.

It took five notes. Five notes to realize how disrespected I felt as a congregant and a member of the choir. By a rabbi who couldn’t get it together. By a choir leader who wouldn’t speak up. Five notes and I decided I was through dreading my Friday nights. Once was enough. This time, I knew I wouldn’t be looking for a replacement. This time, I knew all I yearned for was a year or so of the sanctity of Shabbat at home, with no bimahs to be found.

After five notes, it felt so peaceful and whole and empowering to just stand there and stop. No angry words like last time. No sadness. No resentment. Truthfully, no hard feelings. People will just be who they are–no matter who they say they think they are. My synagogue will never change. I still think it’s an amazing community and a wonderful place to be when it decides to fire on all of its thrusters. But–and Chicagoans will recognize this strategy in so many other areas of local life–it regularly likes to fuck up completely and expects you to be okay with it.

And you know what? I can be okay with it. I just can’t be okay with it and still be a regular worshiper. So I’ll see the inside of it on holidays and yahrzeits if I feel so moved. For now, though, I just can’t because right now it just can’t. So my shul, you be you. But in return, I’m going to be me, too.

And that means five notes in, I didn’t have the words anymore. Five notes later, I smiled to Ryan, set my sheet music on my seat, and walked off the bimah, out of the sanctuary, out of the synagogue, across the street, into my lobby, into my elevator, and into my home. Where I lit my Shabbos candles, davenned, and sang my heart out with our cats. It was the best Shabbat experience I had had in months. It was really bittersweet to realize that.

A couple of weeks ago, the choir leader asked Ryan if they should reach out to me. I had never responded to the angry email they sent, throwing me out of the choir. I had never bothered to read it. The regular Sabbath peace I gave myself back by walking off the bimah that night has been astonishing. I thought it was pretty clear I had quit the choir that night. But unlike five years ago, this time I didn’t feel any need to explain myself.

But now I was curious. I pulled the email out of my archive and finally read it. It said, “You haven’t changed.” Ditto, clearly. But you know what? I really haven’t. I still know how important it is as a Jew to steward your relationship with the Sabbath. I still treasure its arrival every week. I still feel a rush of excitement and joy and wonder as the sun goes down on a Friday night. Its arrival still makes me feel connected to thousands of years of history, and to millions of fellow Jews, and to All That Is. I still treasure it. Everything about it. And most of all, I know I have a right to. That’s why I walked off the bimah in the first place.

That’s why I wouldn’t change a thing.

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