Nov 9, 2007

The synagogue that just wasn't.

I decided that -- because I'm up for adventure -- I'd hit up one of the other Reform synagogues in the area. I like my shul well enough (it sure ain't home, though), but I like to know what else is out there. So I grabbed some dinner and went to the synagogue, which is conveniently downtown near a convenient El stop. The shul shall remain nameless, simply because ... well ... my rant will give it away anyway, but I don't want to call it out. I'm sure they're doing something right, but beyond the clean, fancy building and the spacious seats, I'm not sure what that "right" is.

There was a tot Shabbat going down, so there were lots of families there. In the main sanctuary I noticed that there were quite a few people my age, mixed in with a lot of your classic, old-school shul folks. I sat down and a friendly fellow walked up and shook my hand, said Shabbat Shalom and walked on. He went a few rows up to two other girls my age and started up a conversation with them. I felt sort of shafted, but let it go. As the sanctuary filled with families and more young people, I felt relieved. Then that friendly guy showed up on the bima! Not only that, but he wasn't even sporting a kippah. Now, I'm not one to judge, and the great thing about this fancy thing we call Judaism is its freedom and bounty of rituals and traditions. But the rabbi without a yarmulke?

Then I noticed that the organ was tuning up to go. Now, I have an aversion to organs in shul, simply because, well, it's an organ. It screams of Protestant services. I sat back, and let it go. Then, then came something that almost set me over the edge ... there was no cantor. The shul doesn't have a cantor! It's HUGE, and it doesn't have a cantor, let alone a song leader. No, it has a choir, of four people, who sing in operatic fashion to tunes I've never heard nor could ever pick up, even if I devoted myself to it 24/7 for the next six months. The harmonies were wild, ridiculous, and to top it off, it disallowed the congregation from participating ... no one was singing.

The real kicker came when we got into the traditional, Hebrew aspects of just about every congregation on the planet. These portions were sung by the choir, and the congregation just sat there. Watching. Listening. No participation? When the bar mitzvah got up to read the V'ahavta ... he didn't chant it with the melodic nature that everyone on the planet does ... he just read the transliteration. Everyone was all glowing with pride, and I was like "Are you serious? That's it? You've got to be kidding me!" I listen to kids go through the kiddush every week and their squeaky, off tune voices are music to my ears! This kid didn't even have to try! Mi chamocha, V'sham'ru, both sung by the choir. We just sat there, and I couldn't even understand the words as they sang them. Then came the T'filah. We rose, and recited ... the words ... just said them. No tune, no passion, no nothing. Just said them. Then the choir sang the Avot V'Imahot while we just stood there. Once again, I couldn't even understand them. Where was my service!?

Then there was the fact that the service was ... well ... out of order. I mean, I know the flow of the service, but there was something convoluted and strange about this service. Things seemed out of place, or things were missing, one or the other. The congregation uses their own "edition" of the URJ siddur. Originally I thought "that's cool" but then after going through the service (and nearly walking out after about 5 minutes), I realized "not cool." The word mitzvot is completely missing. The word salvation appears more times than the word the! It is worded strangely and in truth felt more like the Christian services I went to in the days of yore ... it made me exceedingly uncomfortable.

Then there was the sermon. The guy ... well, I was sort of taken aback at his "analysis" of the Torah portion, which seemed more like him quoting some sages than offering insight. Not only that, but he completely neglected the idea that Abraham becoming old wasn't to be taken literally, but that was coupled with becoming the first to gain wisdom, thus growing old. Sigh. And what else? He sounded like a preacher. He had that slow, evangelical drawl thing going on. Not an accent, but that slow, calculated speech that's almost demeaning.

Afterward I stuck around because they were doing the oneg with the kiddush and motzi. This is one thing that I dislike about my present shul, because there they do the kiddush during services and the challah is completely non-existent. So I was excited, and hopefully. One of the younger guys came up and introduced himself to me and asked if I came around much and stuff. I told him I was a member of a different shul, but this one had piqued my interest. He then proceeded to say "isn't the rabbi great? He's probably the best rabbi I've ever heard! And he's our age, he's only 29!" It then made sense. This guy is fresh meat. Then again, the rabbi that converted me was literally fresh out of rabbinical school and he had a vibrancy and Jewish gusto that lacks comparison!

Oh, and I didn't even mention the most interesting part. This synagogue doesn't have Saturday Shabbat services. Instead, it has Sunday morning services a la church. I repeat: No Saturday services, but Sunday services. They rationalize this because you take your kids to Sunday school at the shul, so why not have services then!? Not only that, but it's a decades-old tradition that just happened to stick around. It seems ludicrous to me, but I guess they have plenty of members, so it must be working somehow. But I think their patronage is a certain type of Jew.

Now, I don't want to keep this going because it's already getting long, but attending this shul made me feel like I'd warped back to the early days of the Reform movement where the goal was to mimic the Protestant service. I hate the idea of "Judaism lite," because most people of the faith would say that that is what I've got going on, being a certified member of the Reform movement and all. But the Judaism that I practice is not lite. It might be lite compared to what many Jews do, but I can say it is probably leaps and bounds above what these people do. It was frustrating being there because I wanted to stand up and scream at these people. My favorite parts about the service -- the T'filah and the Amidah and the Aleinu -- they were all ripped out for the sake of a quartet of opera singers. And what for? The people who attend these services don't even attend the services. They sit there and hold their prayerbook (which opens like other American/English books, by the way) and watch as the service floats by. I don't want to say it, but there wasn't much Jewish about that service. It was generic and edging on preaching the "good word." Eternal life and salvation. My G-d ...

Needless to say, I will not be going back. And if anyone asks, I'll give them my two cents. I never wanted to become that person ... the person who says "you're not Jewish enough for me," but it happens and everyone draws those lines -- convert or not. It isn't being hateful or holier than thou, it's coming to the realization that there are these levels, these pegs on the totem pole. I'll never be Jewish enough for the Orthodox Israelis, and I'm mostly okay with that. And now I know that this synagogue, in the heart of this city I love, will never be Jewish enough for me. And it makes me uncomfortable to say that, but I'm mostly okay with that, too.

So it's back to what I've come to know ... even if there is no motzi.


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