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When the Rabbi Shows You Their Backside, Show Yourself Out

Lillian, Walter, and I re-enacting my shock at the shittiest Rabbinic response I’ve ever experienced.

The ongoing pro-terrorism campus insanity keeps bringing me back to why Ryan and I were only members of an Evanston Reform synagogue that shall remain nameless (but IYKYK) for barely two months. I loved the two-hour, traditional Saturday morning service. Ryan liked the (barely any actual rubrics of a service at all) Friday night experience. But in the wake of October 7th, it was the standing toxic demand to keep allying with those who were publicly supporting our massacre (and obviously still are) that was the red line we just couldn’t cross. 

We originally planned to re-join Chicago’s Temple Sholom, our former mainline Reform synagogue in Lakeview where Ryan converted. (And we still may if and when the world regains its senses.) It was wonderful to be back there for a single service in October, but it was still so close in time to the terror attack in Israel, things just didn’t feel right yet. Our original synagogue, Emanuel Congregation–across the street from us and where I became a Jew 13 years ago–no longer has a rabbi, so that was off the table for us. When we re-affiliate, we want a community with a full complement of Jewish clergy.

One Sukkot long ago, we attended a service at the Evanston shul, notable for standing behind the right of its rabbis to speak their minds from the bimah without censure. It’s also the synagogue whose previous head rabbi (of blessed memory) executive-edited the current prayerbook of the Reform Movement, Mishkan T’filah. At the time, years before other local synagogues merged into the community, we didn’t find it a very friendly place, so we never went back. But that was then, and we wanted to keep shul-shopping for post-10/7 Jewish community, so we decided to give it another go.

Traditionalists that we are, the fact that Friday night services under the current lead rabbi never use that prayerbook anymore, even though there are dozens of them on shelves lining the entryway to the sanctuary, should have been a warning to us. (Though honestly, the tenuous connection of the shul’s highly abbreviated Friday night CountryClubKumbayafest® with any semblance of an actual Jewish service would have made using the prayerbook a largely futile effort, anyway.)

But the members, at least, were universally nice, and Ryan loves a low-impact Erev Shabbat and I a hardcore Shabbat morning. And the sense of post-10/7 Jewish community was very welcome in our lives. So we quickly joined, and we persisted. 

Until I got the rabbi’s back side. The only congregant or staff member not to be powerfully welcoming and friendly—or honestly, welcoming and friendly at all. We would not learn until a month into our membership about the raging controversy behind the scenes over a public op-ed penned in support of both-sidesism just days after October 7th. But words from the bimah and in official emails made it crystal clear that while the rabbi expected a wide berth for their public commentary, congregants were expected to think, act, and pray in liberal lockstep with far-left progressive ideals.

Any room for taking the time to heal after 10/7, or temporarily pausing allyship work? None at all. An overt and oppressive expectation—assumption, in fact—that the entire community stand with progressive groups—some of them anti-Zionist, some of them supporting groups already engaging in antisemitic words and deeds? Nonstop.

For a synagogue that has prided itself for decades on promoting free thinking, any evidence of that in practice was absent. By this point my personal politics were already changing, but even staunch Democrat Ryan was feeling out of place. From fellow members coming up to us week after week to privately share their own displeasure, we learned we were far from the only ones who felt that way. Longtime members told us they were aghast at the essentially enforced politics of the rabbi (hence the raging controversy)–and so many new members never stayed long enough to become old ones anymore, that the community was shrinking because of it. 

But being around fellow Jews after 10/7 was so important to us (like it was to so many of us), that we didn’t want to heed the handwriting on the wall. So we kept attending and participating. But I wasn’t shy about my march away from the Democratic Party on Facebook (although at the time I was still shocked about it.) I was never sure if that was the reason for what happened next. Or it could simply have been naked arrogance and bitchiness, because that was essentially all we got back from the bimah. Or maybe it was just a cliquish complete dislike for anyone new. (See again: Friday night CountryClubKumbayafest®.)

Ryan’s last service there was the week before mine. He doesn’t like to attend synagogue every week like I do, but he offered to drive me there and pick me up after services. When he saw the look on my face when he picked me up that Friday night, he knew.

It had been the usual odd-fest of an evening, but at least the drum circle with participatory percussion was engaging. (I know. I know.) After the service concluded, the rabbi stood at the exit from the sanctuary greeting and saying goodnight to congregants. I had been sitting with a lifelong member on one side and the congregation’s Membership Director (and former Synagogue Director) on the other. We all got along very well for two months. After saying goodnight to them, I joined the greeting line by the exit to say goodnight and happy birthday to the rabbi (as it was the rabbi’s birthday weekend.) To every long-term member, she was welcoming, friendly, and chatty.

To me, she immediately turned her back. I had said three words and in mid-sentence, she barked, “Thank you”, and turned 180 degrees so that my continuing sentence was met with her backside. No one else was talking to her, I had been at the end of the line. I kept speaking. She did not turn back around and never again acknowledged my presence. She made it deliberately clear, as a newcomer I was not welcome to speak to her.

There are many words I could use to describe behavior like that, but when it’s coming from the lead rabbi of your new synagogue where you are a paid member, making said rabbi your rabbi, the best one I can think of is reprehensible. Un-rabbinic? Un-Jewish? A shonda? Sure. But at the heart of it, completely reprehensible.

One day Ryan and I will have a synagogue wedding, hopefully with my New York nephews there in the sanctuary. That’s so important to us. And I will never forget thinking as I stared incredulously back at the rabbi’s ass, “I will never let you marry us.”

I told Ryan when I got in the car I was never setting foot in the synagogue again and why, and he was as shocked as I was. But after the experience of our previous two months there, not too shocked. Then I emailed the Membership director and resigned our membership. 

It was shortly after that pro-Palestinian activist groups and far-left progressive Jewish groups—the same ones the rabbi wanted us to stand alongside—started taking over downtown Evanston’s Fountain Square, waving Hamas flags, and chanting death to Jews. (The same groups that are now taking over public areas at Northwestern.) Before I unsubscribed, the synagogue’s emails began cautioning congregants to stay away from downtown protests, and alerting that information screens inside the building viewable from outside would no longer show sensitive information.

So when the Membership Director repeatedly asked me why we were leaving, I felt bad giving a fully honest response. I just said in the end we didn’t feel welcome from the bimah as new members with diverse views.

But “I think you have a fucked up rabbi” would have been a more accurate answer.

Categories: COMMUNITY JUDAISM UNAFFILIATED

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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