Monday, March 29, 2004

Torn Between Two Temples

I am having a love affair with another synagogue. I feel slightly guilty - like maybe I should put more effort into working on my relationship with my own temple instead of seeking fulfillment on the other side of the tunnel. But I just can’t resist the thrill of Beth Abraham’s Rock and Roll Shabbat, with the 10-piece band, the young Rabbi full of ideas and energy, and the hundreds of congregants clapping and singing and dancing in the aisles. I look forward to the sporadically scheduled event for months, although the 45 minutes always end all too briefly, leaving me longing for the next jolt of spiritual uplift.

It’s not that I haven’t attempted to find excitement closer to home. When our synagogue started monthly “Ruach Shabbat” services featuring music and singing, I showed up eagerly. Sure, one lady strumming on an acoustic guitar couldn’t exactly compare to Beth Abraham’s well-rehearsed band, but it was a start. Rabbi Rachel led the services with an infectious joy, and encouraged people to get up out of their seats and participate. The kids weren’t pressured to sit still, the music was nice, and we all relaxed and had a good time. But some people obviously felt the service was a little TOO relaxed. The next month, the rules had changed. The kids were told they had to stay in their seats. No talking or walking around during services. The bright green egg shakers, such a big hit at the first service, were parceled out for one song and then immediately confiscated, lest the children make unauthorized noise with them. Each subsequent service was dialed down just a little bit, until last week, when the giggling and high spirits were met with such icy glares that all of the kids retreated outside and blew bubbles with Luther the custodian until the service was over.

I tried communicating my needs, as any relationship counselor would advise. I showed up at the monthly meeting of the Religious Committee to express my desire for a real alternative to attract the many members who are uninspired by the basic, traditional weekly service. The first Ruach Shabbat was a step in the right direction, I pointed out, but instead of shying away from the music and dancing and laughing, we should be encouraging more of it. I had lots of ideas: get the fledgling Klezmer Band involved, have the Israeli dance specialist on hand to get people participating, move the service to the social hall where people will feel less inhibited (thereby leaving the sanctuary free for those who prefer the more sedate service). I was optimistic at first – the Cantor liked the idea of collaborating with the band, and even the Resident Curmudgeon was nodding her head. But things quickly derailed as a few of the more – shall we say, conservative – members expressed alarm at the idea of singing, dancing hordes rocking to godless guitars in an officially sanctioned event. In the end, they got cold feet and decided to pull the plug on the entire concept.

If the only issue was having music during prayers, well, I suppose I could learn to live without it. But from the moment I set foot in Beth Abraham, it felt more like home than the place I have attended for the past 25 years. There were a lot more people my age there, and a much wider variety of congregants in general – gay couples, young moms nursing their infants, people dressed to the nines and others wearing batik scarves and Birkenstock sandals. I even saw a few people with disabilities, including one with Down Syndrome – something I rarely see at my own temple. I glanced at the bulletin board in the lobby and marveled at the diverse array of events. There were Kindergym and Mommy & Me yoga classes, a great nursery school, and a full calendar of social action events: wetlands restoration, blood drives, tree planting, working at the soup kitchen. Maybe I am just projecting, as I tend to do when I have a crush, but I feel like Beth Abraham would be the perfect fit for me, that I’d find more like-minded friends there, that my kids would be happier and internalize the sorts of values that I want for them.

Like anyone in the midst of an affair, I sometimes fantasize about breaking off my stale relationship and making a full-time commitment to my new love. But it just isn’t possible – it’s hard enough to get motivated to go to services and events as it is, without having to drive for 45 minutes. I need a neighborhood shul, a place where I can pop by on weekends for Sunday School and Tot Shabbat, where I can go to Friday night services and still make it home for dinner. And despite everything – even though my beloved Rabbi will be stepping down soon and my close friend Rabbi Rachel will leave her post as Educational Director in a few months, leaving me with even fewer connections – I still feel a sense of fidelity to the place.

At least I am not sneaking around. I have made my love of Beth Abraham known to all my friends, and have regularly recruited large groups of people to come to Rock and Roll Shabbat with me to see what all the fuss is about. What some might see as a flagrant lack of loyalty, I see as a latch-ditch attempt to save the relationship. My hope is that when the powers that be at B’nai Shalom see that more and more of their congregants are heading three towns over to go to services instead of slogging through another bland evening at their own shul, they will be concerned enough to listen to our needs and make some real changes.


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