Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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.

Rabbi Mates-Muchin started the service with Shehecheyanu, the blessing for extraordinary moments. We celebrated Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. We celebrated King v Burwell, in which SCOTUS affirmed the Affordable Care Act. And on the side of anguish, we prayed for those who are mourning in South Carolina, as the funerals begin for the nine people murdered in Emanuel AME Church. Many of us had been deeply moved by President Obama’s eulogy for State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

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.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

18 thoughts on “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”

  1. So very true, Rabbi Ruth! You have covered all the bases in regard to a synagogue being a place to be together with our fellow Jews, in sad, and happy occasions. With the events in South Carolina (:-(, and in Washington (:-), our Rabbis conducted the Friday service and today’s Torah Study with precision, but with a lot of emotion. Loved when you said: “But even better, when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs.” Yes, another GREAT post! Thank you!

    1. I’m glad you’ve found a synagogue that is home for you! Tell me, if you were to advise someone who was feeling like their synagogue wasn’t very homey, what would you suggest?

      1. since I ended membership, I suggest doing this:

        1. Talk privately to leaders at your shul, to see if problems are resolvable.

        2. Be clear about what you need.

        3. Do not be ashamed if you have needs the congregation does not have.

        4. Before leaving, expand. make sure you are participating in a variety of community alternatives. I am a member of Kol hadash, and a meditation group, Kol HaLev.

        5. Listen and be aware that you might not be the only one with these problems, not only at your shul, but elsewhere.

        6. don’t rush to join, until you see the new shul is really an excellent fit.

        7. as a bottom line, how much is your participation welcome? are the core people doing everything, and stretched so thin, but they don’t need any help? fine, be that way.

        8. Leave when your ready. go back when your ready for a visit if an offering is good for you.

        9. Leave ’em laughing when you go. If the shul isn’t responsive, and you have taken the above steps, cancel you membership, and put a stop payment on your shul’s monthly dues. They will notice that, I assure you. Would that it would make them think. If not, you are out of there.

  2. Rabby Ruth, that’s a good question! I cannot imagine a small synagogue that’s not very homey. You know better than me that Jews are such a nice people – friendly, receptive to visitors, and always embracing each other (we don’t need to mention the excellent food, a constant at each event at the synagogue) We may feel that the synagogue is not very homey when the congregation is very large. In such case, I would work on relationship with a smaller group of people (those that usually seat around us during service). Another way to turn the synagogue more friendly to me would be my participation in some of the different groups/activities. I feel that we can make the synagogue our home, instead of waiting for someone to take care of the task. Thanks so much for asking me the question!

  3. I’m about 3 weeks into saying Kaddish for my mom. I’ve been warmly and sympathetically welcomed everywhere I’ve gone to do that, including O congregations, but the only place it makes me cry is at our mutual “home.” I think it’s because I’ve got my guard all the way down there (and also because there’s no struggle to keep up with the parts of the service I don’t know well enough yet). Being “home” is good. I also agree with Fabio above that we each can take actions that contribute greatly to how “at home” we feel. If you don’t show up between one Rosh Hashanah and another, if you don’t reach out in some way, that process will take longer even in the most well-meaning congregation.

    1. Oh, Patti, I am so sorry. But you say it well: home is where we can let our guard down. May her memory always be a blessing, and may you be comforted among the mourners of our people.

  4. I recently ended membership at my shul, because it was too hard to get to evening services, volunteering was not encouraged, and the Torah study group featured inappropriate and and unpleasant discussions on the part of some members.Basically, they were sexist, and did not like converts much.They were also a group of long time friends so they did not care one way or another who said what, since they were there to socialize. It was and is, hard to adjust. I have, however, joined a community, Kol Hadash, which has welcomed me and my husband, and included us in the small groups meeting in our neighborhood every month. I have even been elected to serve on the Board of Directors. Being included is an important concern for me. Without it, I feel bad. I do not want to be a member of an organization such as my old shul, where only founding members are allowed to play. At the end, a long time member, took me aside, and said I would never be part of our congregation’s community; it was reserved for founding members. They owned the place.I am not going to pay so some folks there can play. I also go from time to time to Beth El. Part of being a Jew means at the very least getting to services. It is comforting to me. I have to be able to at least do that.Listen Rabbi, I need community. My husband was very sick last May, and I did not feel free to ask anyone at my old shul for help. That alone tells me it is good to move on, but I have a hard time letting go of my shul. Many good things happened there, including my conversion. but, I want more, and I want responsiveness.

    1. You make an important point, Anne. Sometimes there is some dynamic in a community that makes it not the right place for us. Good for you, that when you realized it would never be ” home,” you sought out a better synagogue for you and your husband. Where is Kol Hadash? It sounds wonderful.

      1. We don’t actually have an official home, so we meet at the Albany Community Center on Marin Avenue.

        The community aspect is the best. If it is not there, I just don’t feel good. To make a long story short, I need attention and responsiveness more than some do. I was raised in a very dismissive home. Also I need encouragement after converting. It is a big deal to me.

        It’s bittersweet, leaving. I was there about seven years, and some people there were covering my back, including the woman who spoke to me about how my shul was organized, and who it was for.

        Earlier on, I supported her and her spouse, when they married. I also was the only straight to come to a community event she sponsored. So, I am not the only one who did not get the respect she deserved.

        Honesty is harsh, but it is better ultimately to live in the real world.

    2. I’m so sorry to hear about your negative experience, and I think you’ve made exactly the right move. There are absolutely places where no matter how much one reaches out, nobody will be there to reach back. How sad that this group has so little understanding of “welcoming the guest.” The chickens will come home to roost, however, when enough of the founders are gone that they don’t have a minyan any more and suddenly find themselves needing to reach out to others. One is not above a tiny bit of schadenfreude contemplating that eventuality.

  5. The husband and I did not manage to get to shul on Shabbat this weekend, because of some medical issues, but how I wish we had been able to.

    1. Ack, hit “enter” too quickly. But we did manage to get to shul last Shabbat, and my husband was almost in tears that night because, as he said, “It feels like coming home.”

  6. I love my shul. We are a hodge-podge of differing viewpoints, political and otherwise – and our discussions are sometimes quite heated but irregardless, when it comes to a really harsh week, as you say, “it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.”

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