The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.
Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.
After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.
Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.
And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)
Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.
I used to work for a major Jewish organization, and part of my job was to answer questions that came in over the telephone. (Nowadays they use websites for that.) One of the strangest calls I ever received was from a woman who said:
“I’ve talked to three rabbis and I am very frustrated. You see, I was Jewish in a previous life. But these rabbis insist that I can’t be Jewish unless I convert! They don’t get it: I don’t need to convert!”
I could tell that she was 100% serious. She found it hugely insulting that those rabbis hadn’t taken her at her word. By the end of our conversation, she had decided that I was a horrible person too, because I would not point her to a rabbi who would agree with her that she was born Jewish.
She has stuck in my mind for fifteen years. What seemed perfectly reasonable to her was simply not going to fly with any rabbi I knew, then or now.
The reason is, no one gets to make up their own private Judaism. There are many different expressions of Judaism: Secular, Haredi, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, and a thousand different shades of each of those. What there isn’t is private Judaism. A person can say something like “I was born Jewish in a previous life so I’m Jewish” but that will not persuade other Jews that they should agree.
Granted, the Jewish world is full of disagreements: we thrive on them. One group says one thing, another disagrees. We’ve been doing that as far back as Jacob’s children, and on every subject imaginable.
Once a person is a congregation of one, though, it’s another matter. A Jew all alone, insisting that something is “the true way” is in a bad place. The Talmud tells a story about Rabbi Eliezer, a learned and holy rabbi, who ruled differently from all the other rabbis about an oven. He insisted that he was right and all of them were wrong. Then he called nature and God to witness, and both affirmed that the law always went his way. The rabbis retorted that they’d outvoted him, and that “After the majority must one incline.” (Exodus 23:2.) Then a Heavenly Voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” Rabbi Eliezer is so upset by this, and by his isolation, that he brings disaster upon himself and upon the whole community. (Bava Metzia 59b)
It would have been better for the rabbis not to break Rabbi Eliezer’s heart. But it also would have been better had he not separated himself from the community. That separation – his insistence that he was right and all of them were wrong – was the impulse that set a tragedy in motion.
This is a teaching that is very uncomfortable for many of us American Jews, because we, like other Americans, are admirers of rugged individualism. In American mythology, there is nobility in being the lone voice whom everyone later realizes was right.
But that’s just not how Judaism works. We figure things out by comparing notes. We preserve minority opinions with care, but we are wary of lone opinions until and unless they stand the test of time. (Example:. Spinoza.)
Not every “private Judaism” question I get is as extreme as the “Jewish in a previous life” lady’s question. But it is always worth pondering, if a person asks rabbi after rabbi and gets “no” for an answer, if perhaps what they want isn’t Jewish at all.
“Why can’t Jews get married on Shabbat?” a reader asked me recently. She and her fiancé had made a lot of expensive wedding arrangements, only to discover that very few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.) Now they are scrambling to find an officiant that will agree to officiate before sundown on a Saturday evening in the summertime.
TRADITION – At weddings, couples do many expensive and inconvenient things to honor tradition. Brides may pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a dress they will only wear once. Couples mull over the “old, new, borrowed, and blue” custom. People who do not frequent synagogues or churches suddenly need a rabbi or priest. We do these and other things because on one of the biggest days of our lives, tradition matters. And it is Jewish tradition that weddings do not take place on the Sabbath and certain other days.
SHABBAT – Shabbat began at creation: as the story goes in Genesis 1, in six days God worked to make the world, and on the seventh, God rested. One of the traditions of Shabbat is that like God in the creation story, we don’t create new things on that day. What happens at a Jewish wedding is the creation of a new household among the Jewish People. It’s one of the most important events in not only the couple’s lives, but in the life of their Jewish community and the Jewish world. It should have a good start, and for a Sabbath-observant Jew, “breaking” Shabbat is not a good start.
RABBIS – Rabbis become rabbis because they care deeply about Judaism. Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish week, and it actually “outranks” nearly all the holidays. It isn’t a judgment on the couple or the family; it is a question of the rabbi’s personal boundaries.
So what is a couple to do?
1. Talk as a couple about what you really want out of this wedding. Is Jewish tradition important to you? If so, get in touch with a rabbi and include them in the process. They will be happy to take you through a process of learning the Jewish traditions for weddings and making educated choices about what you do and don’t want.
2. If you are in the early stages of planning your wedding, talk with your rabbi before you put deposits on the venue and the caterer!
3. If you have already made arrangements that cannot be changed, then it’s more complicated. There are some rabbis who officiate on Shabbat, but you may have to look out of town to find one. If it is actually not all that important to have a rabbi, maybe you have a relative or friend who could officiate. Many states have arrangements for one-day officiants. Any marriage that is recognized by the state is also recognized by the Jewish people.
Please don’t be mad at the rabbis you call who say they won’t officiate on Shabbat. They are exercising their right to observe Judaism according to their beliefs. You are exercising yours as well. You and that rabbi just aren’t a good match. Getting angry or calling them names will not persuade them to do what you want.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. Take your time figuring out what you really want out of it, and the tone you want to set for the rest of your life together. Your wedding day truly is “the first day in the rest of your life.”
How do you keep up with the news of the Jewish world?
Sometimes it can seem as if “the Jewish world” consists of my own little Jewish community plus whatever is in the news about Israel. In the summer of 2014, if you believed the television, the only things going on anywhere were war in Gaza and a terrifying rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.
Granted, it was not a happy summer for Jews, but if you were tuned in to Jewish news sources, you (1) had a more complete picture of the bad things and (2) knew what other things were happening with Jews globally.
My favorite Jewish news source is JTA.org. The long form of its name will give you a clue how long it has been serving the community: Jewish Telegraphic Agency. One of the things I love about the JTA is the depth of its archive: they will give you the current story, then background on the issue. For instance, today there is an article about the history of tension around the Temple Mount. Less savvy news services might give you the idea that trouble at the Temple Mount is a current development, but the JTA article gives you the background. Sometimes stories read a little differently when you know the history.
You can sign up for daily news from the service. Sometimes I only have time to skim that email, but it gives me the headlines for the Jewish world.
I know that JTA.org is not the only source for Jewish news: do you have a favorite? Tell us about it in the comments!
• Synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting. Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues.
• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.
• IMPORTANT: Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that that amount will not fit into your budget. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.
• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school? Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.
• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.
I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for one, but I’ve been a member of a synagogue for twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call the rabbis; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.
Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.
There are three days of the year when synagogues are weird. Services are not typical. The crowd attending the synagogue is not typical. Even the clergy may not be their usual selves.
In other words, those are bad days to “shul-shop,” to visit a prospective synagogue. Here they are:
Purim is fun, if you are a member of the community. But it is an evening when people wear masks, get rowdy, and may be a little tipsy. There may be a play, a “Purim Shpiel,” with lots of inside jokes that won’t make any sense to you. In the daytime, there will be a children’s carnival, with hordes of sugar-crazed little ones. Don’t visit for the first time on Purim – it could be the nicest shul in the world but you will want to flee screaming.
2. Rosh HaShanah
Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) services are beautiful. However, they are also very long.The rabbi’s sermon will be longer, too. Like a church at Easter, every member is there and more dressed up than usual. The service, and the music, are different from regular services. Tickets are usually required. Don’t visit for the first time on Rosh HaShanah – it may be pretty, but it just isn’t typical.
and now, for the VERY WORST DAY TO VISIT A SYNAGOGUE:
1. Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the worst possible day to visit a new synagogue. Nothing is normal. The evening service, Kol Nidre, is much like Rosh HaShanah: everyone dressed up, solemn music, lengthy sermon, a huge crowd. And in the morning service, it is all that but even more so: no one has had any coffee. If you are already part of the community, then misery has company. We do the work of the day (praying), we kvetch about our caffeine headaches, services go on and on and on. The music is still beautiful. But it is no place or time to take the temperature of a synagogue, because the singers are hired, the clergy is tired, and no one has had any coffee.
When is a good time to shop for a shul? Any day but those three days!
That said, many people these days don’t find rabbis through the synagogue. Moreover, there is nothing preventing a person from putting “Rabbi” in front of their name and simply setting up a website and some business cards. While there are laws against practicing medicine or law without a license, pretty much anyone can go online and get “ordained” for a fee. There’s also nothing preventing someone from setting up an online “rabbinical school” that requires little of their students.
You may be wondering, why does this matter? If you are looking for someone to stand up front for a ceremony and read a service, maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe then you’re just as well off asking a cousin or a friend – why worry about the title “rabbi” at all? If on the other hand, you want a real rabbi: someone qualified to do premarital counseling, or someone who can be a resource in making Jewish choices, or someone to guide you through a conversion process, then perhaps you will want to choose more carefully.
Particularly where conversion is concerned, the rabbi’s credentials will determine not only how and where you are accepted as a Jew, but how your descendants will be accepted. An ethical rabbi will be honest with you about exactly what conversion with them will mean to other Jews, and they will not charge money for the conversion.
So what is a layperson to do, especially one who is new to the Jewish community? Three things will tell you a lot about any rabbi: ask about their Education, Affiliation, and Experience.
Education. Where did this rabbi study? How many years of study were required? For comparison, I can tell you that Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school) as well as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles (both Conservative rabbinical schools) require five years or more of graduate study (meaning, incoming students already have a B.A.). All three require students to live for a year in Israel, studying texts and immersed in the Hebrew language. Their coursework includes not only Jewish text learning, but training in counseling, education, and professional ethics. The Orthodox world has a lot more variety, as does the nondenominational Jewish world, but the same question applies: how many years did you study before you got the title, Rabbi? Were you ordained by a single individual, or by a faculty of learned Jews?
This relates to more than just academics. What was this person willing to invest in becoming a rabbi? How many years, how much inconvenience? It is not only a question of money (although trust me, five years of grad school is expensive) but also a question about dedication to the Jewish People.
Affiliation.To what professional organizations does this rabbi belong? The reason you ask this question is that a rabbi who belongs to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) or the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) has agreed to maintain certain ethical standards, and is answerable to the association if there are questions about his or her behavior. You can ask if they are members of their local Board of Rabbis, or other professional organizations. The idea is, how connected is this rabbi to colleagues? To whom, if anyone, is this person answerable?
Rabbis who are connected to other rabbis also can tap a deep well of resources for you. As a CCAR member, I can ask a quick question by leaving a message online for other rabbis to chime in. If I am concerned about how best to handle a tricky situation, I can pick up the phone and call a mentor or a more experienced senior rabbi. I participate in continuing education, and my colleagues challenge me to do my best.
Experience. Have they ever served in a congregation? Been a Jewish chaplain? Lived in Israel? Worked with Jewish youth? Done prison chaplaincy? Served the Jewish community overseas? Of course, not every rabbi has done all those things, but by asking you will get a better idea of who this person is, and what depth of experience they will bring to you.
A rabbi who has solid credentials and experience will be glad to answer these questions and proud of the answers. Be wary of anyone who seems to want you to feel bad about asking.
No rabbi is perfect. No rabbi is knowledgeable about everything, and perfectly trained in every respect. We’re fallible human beings. But asking about Education, Affiliation, and Experience can give you a better idea of who this rabbi is than you can get from a nice website or a well written marketing blurb.