A Tale of Two Synagogues

I find myself in a mixed bag of denominations of Judaism, with the bag well-shaken.  I grew up attending an Orthodox yeshiva, attending a Conservative synagogue with my mother, and asking a lot of confused questions of my non-believing father.  Dad says he’s a Jew by ethnicity, not religion.  He claims to be agnostic, but Mom says he’s an atheist.

Labels!  They’re enough to drive you crazy.  At Kol Nidre services this year, the rabbi pointed out that labels are good for whiskey bottles, but not for people.

The only synagogue in my immediate area is a Reformed congregation that holds services just once each month.  For the High Holy Days, I generally attend a very Orthodox Chabad congregation, about a half hour drive away.  This year, however, I decided to split the difference by attending Chabad in the evening for Kol Nidre, and then the nearby Reformed synagogue for Yom Kippur services the following morning.
Admittedly, I had an ulterior motive.  Kol Nidre at the Reformed synagogue involved a musical performance by a cellist.  I attended such a service years ago, and it’s more than I can stomach.  (The cello seems to be popular for Yom Kippur in some circles, due to its sad and somber tone, matching the mood of the day.). Conservative and Orthodox traditions consider the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat and holidays to be a desecration of the holiness of the day.  While I like to think I’m more than a little flexible in my religious practice, the cello thing is where I draw the line.  It just feels wrong to me.

Several weeks ago, as Mom was preparing for her surgery, she asked me to locate a Jewish funeral home in the area, “just in case.”  I called up the rabbi at Chabad, whom I knew would have the information at hand.  Toward the end of our chat, he asked if he would see me for the High Holidays.  I hemmed and hawed, finally admitting that the Reformed synagogue is so much closer to my home.  “Well, come for the second day of Rosh Hashannah.  They don’t have the second day at Reformed.”  I remained noncommittal, not wanting to fess up to the fact that Mom would be having surgery on that holiday.  “Reformed isn’t really my cup of tea,” I admitted to the rabbi, mumbling something about wanting to support the synagogue in my local community.

The day before Yom Kippur, I visited both synagogues’ websites and made a modest donation to each.  I left work early, went out to dinner with my wife and her sister well before sundown (when we start our 25-hour fast), and was dropped off at Chabad. In some sectors, the local Chabad congregation is popular at High Holy Day time, as they have a policy of eschewing tickets and charging nothing for seats or attendance.  As many barely observant Jews attend synagogue only once a year, on Yom Kippur, it has become a standard practice among American synagogues to set a fee to purchase a ticket for a seat.  Not Chabad.  (The whole “pay to pray” concept is a complex subject that would require a post of its own.). So, to avoid paying, many essentially nonreligious Jews head for the free Chabad synagogue and, for one day, put up with Hassidism.  What exactly are they “putting up with?”  For one, they put up with men and women sitting out of sight of each other on opposite sides of the sanctuary, the mekhitza (divider) separating husbands and wives.  Also, if you’re male and arrive before the sundown start of the holiday, you’re likely to be collared in the vestibule (as I was) and asked to don tefillin (“phylacteries”), wrapping a leather strap around your arm and pulling another over your head to say a Hebrew prayer.  Then there are the Hassidic melodies, unfamiliar to many from other denominations, and a stern sermon that is likely to rankle the less observant Jews among us.

Last year at the Kol Nidre service, for example, the Chabad rabbi preached on the importance of following the dietary laws of kashruth, urging congregants to make a start by firmly committing to eat only kosher food for breakfast.  This sort of thing (and that was mild compared to the fire-and-brimstone offerings on tap at some Orthodox congregations) turns off many of our nonobservant fellows.

This year, by contrast, I felt that the Chabad rabbi went a lot easier on us.  In fact, after our recent phone conversation, it almost seemed that his sermon was addressing me personally.  I like to think that perhaps I even inspired the content of his sermon.

Thinking about my remark that Reformed services aren’t exactly my cup of tea, the essence of the rabbi’s remarks were that we are all Jews and that we should strive for unity rather than fomenting division by pasting labels and raising walls at every turn.  I wholeheartedly concur.  But I’m still not a fan of the cello service.

The following morning, I attended the Yom Kippur service at the Reformed synagogue nearby.  When I arrived, the service had already begun.  The rabbi was a woman, a refreshing change in my view, and not something you’d ever see in an Orthodox congregation.  In attendance were eight old ladies and two old men.  Not that I’m young or anything, but a congregation composed of octogenarians, and not many of them, can’t survive for long.

Reformed congregations tend to hold a more abbreviated service, with most of the prayers read in English rather than Hebrew. But the prayer book they used had more than a bit of a hippy-dippy cast.  To be fair, many traditional prayers appeared, with interwoven alternate, modern verses.  For example, there was a prayer for Mother Earth that referenced climate change and global warming.  (Which isn’t to say that this is not a vital topic of public discourse; it’s just that, when found mixed into my religion, it comes off a bit like a fly in my soup.). And the traditional Al-Het prayer, in which we confess our sins by name, made reference to sins of disrespect committed “because I was drinking.”  This falls about six standard deviations from what one can expect to see in a prayer book used by Chabad.  Ultimately, it’s a matter of preferences, and a matter of what you’re used to.

In her sermon, the Reformed rabbi referred to her dysfunctional upbringing by an alcoholic father.  The previous evening, by contrast, the rabbi at Chabad told the story of a Jewish woman going to the post office to buy stamps.

“What denomination?” asked the postal clerk.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Synagogues

  1. It took me a while to get used to services at my Reconstructionist synagogue, but, for me, the musical instruments were a huge plus. We have a violinist for Kol Nidre, a congregant, and it really captures the high lonesome sound of the prayer.

    • I suspect one’s comfort zone in synagogue (or anywhere) is a matter if what you’re used to. Personally, I don’t think of prayer as a lonesome sound. Quite the opposite. I think of it as communal, a spiritual meeting of the minds.

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