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impure frozen

UPDATE (3/26/18): In almost a decade and a half, I have never taken down a post on my blog and I won’t start now. I think it’s important to know where you’ve been if you want to really know where you’re going. But before you read this, I want you to know the anger and accusations in this long-ago post no longer reflect my current thoughts and feelings about Emanuel Congregation. Where there was anger, there is love and peace. It took me too long to get there. You really should read my teshuvah.


Two weekends ago, what a weekend it was. The Friday before last, my experience chanting Torah for the first time publicly on Shabbat was amazing. The next morning, I walked out of my synagogue and decided to start shul shopping.

I chanted without aid of a yad (pointer), which caused controversy for some present who believed that you have to use one to “prove” that you’re reading and not chanting from memory. That’s the kind of “appearances are everything” Judaism I completely reject, so I didn’t much care. The words in the scroll and I needed no intermediary, and leaning over the open Torah, I read out in melody my portion in Hebrew, and then translated it in melody into English, word for word. It was easy and felt like something I was always meant to do.

My d’var was much the same as I shared here last month. I identified Vayikra (Leviticus), as a manual for managing our human reaction to the experience of radical awe. And I reminded people that they had as much right to make up their own minds to accept or reject, without guilt, the mitzvot we can’t do anymore (without a standing Temple) as the mitzvot that we still do–or don’t do–every day.

I also pointed out that the state of tamei (impurity) in Vayikra was a universal human moment, when we pause from the (good or bad) overwhelm of a particular life event to take it all in, and look for a way to guide ourselves back to our sense of normalcy. I noted that Judaism suggests we consider using ritual acts to connect ourselves better with God in order to guide ourselves back.

I was supposed to chant from the Torah scroll and deliver my d’var at Shabbat morning services the next day. Including clergy and myself, by mid-service a total of only six people were present. And I really felt the foolishness of continuing to consider my current synagogue as my spiritual home.

I mean what I wrote in March about where I daven: I pray in a place that has become a religious school dog waving a clearly waning tail of a worship community, a situation that has made me and many others feel left out. A consequence clearly visible to anyone who’s looking (though unfortunately few are) has been a growing inability on Shabbat for the congregation to pull in the religiously required minimum number of Jews, the minyan, for a full and Jewishly legal worship service to take place.

In Reform Judaism, a minyan includes 10 people. Ever since the middle of December on Friday nights, and for at least a year on Saturday mornings, getting to 10 people has increasingly been an open question. More than once this year non-Jews were obviously included in the minyan count on Friday nights. And more than once since last summer, there simply has not been a minyan on Saturday morning.

When you have eight or nine people, it’s traditional to count a Torah scroll as part of the minyan and go on with the full service. When you have six people, you’re pretty much out of luck. The cantor was clearly pained by the turnout that Saturday morning, and apologized about it. She offered the opportunity for me to chant from a prayerbook, instead, since the Torah scroll had to stay put in the ark.

I declined. I wasn’t sure whether I was more sad, disappointed, or angry, but more than anything I felt foolish. I had spent two months practicing my portion, looking up definitions and translating word for word, researching rabbinic opinions, learning trope melodies, and practicing 10 times a day in two languages. I wanted the words of Torah to speak for themselves, without me screwing them up–or worse, delivering them so haltingly that all anyone could concentrate on was my lack of practicing my portion. I lived Tazria for two months.

And I still am. I stood up and told the cantor that if the congregation couldn’t be bothered to simply show up on Shabbat so that a Torah scroll could see the light of day and its words be heard, then I was going to throw my lot in with the Torah and remain silent, too. And then I left and went home.

The most amazing part wasn’t that I told my congregation off in the middle of the service, though. It was running into a board member and other members of the congregation in the lobby on my way out. People who could have made a minyan–if it had ever occurred to them to go to their own congregational service taking place 100 yards away.

But when your synagogue is a b’nei mitzvah factory, if it’s not a day with kids on the bimah, no one shows up. That’s a truism in liberal Judaism, and the only way around it is to diversify your membership–and mean it. And “meaning it” means offering and taking seriously programming, events, and worship services that speak to all Jews. It also means not assuming that new–or current–members without children will simply (as if by magic) define their identities the same way as Jewish parents do. And it definitely means not giving your board members a pass on never showing up for services.

And when your synagogue is a b’nei mitzvah factory, nobody listens when you say this. If I had a nickel for every time someone in leadership at my shul asked me what the problem was over the past three-and-a-half years, I’d have several dollars by now. But at some point, you just get tired of repeating the same thing over, and over, and over again.

My shul can’t pull in a Saturday morning minyan anymore because members with children only attend monthly kids’ services and there’s no official emphasis on any other type of member. The next step is cutting back or eliminating Saturday services altogether, unless there’s a bar or bat mitzvah happening. This is exactly what has happened with every other Reform synagogue in Chicago. And the step after that is cutting back on Friday night services.

And then you’re just a school. And then you’re just a fondly remembered congregation.

This is a natural, awful, very sad progression that has repeated across the country over the past few decades. No one ever wants to hear that it’s happening. The canary in the coal mine is always–always–refusing to diversify your membership. Or to notice when members who enhance your diversity stop being members.

My period of tamei needs nothing more than a prayerbook and a quiet bedroom or balcony for awhile. Normal, day-to-day congregational life can take care of itself without me. Whether I go back to my shul or go elsewhere is a decision I have not yet made. Honestly, though, for me the trust is gone, and as a Conservative Jewish friend told me, “You need to find a place where you can grow [religiously].”

And I would add, daven reliably, and with a minyan. Although Pesach hasn’t gotten here yet, I’m well aware that I’ve already struck out into the desert.

I’m not in any hurry to return to Egypt, either.

Categories: Emanuel Congregation JEWISH OBSERVANCE UNAFFILIATED

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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6 replies

  1. I cannot say I disagree with any of your observations and feelings about synagogue life. My wife and I moved to NYC area almost a year ago. We bought a little house two city blocks near a beautiful, old Byzantine Revival Reform shul where we had met with and liked the rabbi, where we had attended high holiday services and felt “at home”.

    After getting settled in, the time came to inquire about membership. The rabbi and the chairman of the membership committee were both warm and inviting, but then explained that in about six months they would be losing the synagogue’s buildings and property, but that they would start meeting either in members’ homes, or possibly in a local Catholic Church if they could figure out how to cover the cross. There would be no more Shabbat services in the social hall (they have long-since given up on using the drop-dead gorgeous sanctuary unless b’nei mitzvah is happening, due to low turnout and high heating costs). But when the topic of membership dues came up, we were stunned to learn that it would cost nearly $1900 per year to be members of this no-shul, no facilities, “maybe we’ll meet like a chavurah” synagogue. Keep in mind, we bought a house to be within walking distance of shul. They even moved their religious school to another temple several miles away (we don’t have kids). The idea of spending that kind of dough for a membership to a ghost of a religious community was even a bit insulting; we would pay for the too-costly synagogue that is soon to be no more. So, now we’re stuck. There are no other Reform shuls near us, and we, too, are back in the desert. I’ve half-heartedly approached shuls in Manhattan that are more stable (and have lower dues), but it’s just not the same. And we cannot afford multiple memberships. Sad sad sad.

    I really hope you find that place where you can grow. And I hope we do, too. Thanks for your (always) thoughtful posts.

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