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Jewish Experience? You Got to Make Your Own

Image by Joanne Seiff

Caroline Rothstein’s recent post, “Lost in Jewish No-Man’s Land,” made me want to write back. Yes, Judaism (and religion in general) is about “questioning and searching for meaning.” However, some of the comments in response to her post made another point. Rothstein recounts her journey as someone who has travelled and searched for Jewish congregations in a variety of places. She isn’t alone. Since getting married 15 years ago, my husband and I have lived in four cities and two countries. We have belonged to five shuls during that time and we’ve attended services at many more — in all varieties, as our family is some of everything: secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Lubavitch.

What we’ve learned from all this? Finding a Jewish community and home does not happen on occasional high holidays or when you have emergency kaddish minyan needs. In fact, attending a shul for the first time on high holidays is not really representative of the congregation’s personality the rest of the year. High holidays are like a Jewish version of baseball’s World Series! Very few would start out a relationship with baseball with World Series tickets. Instead, you might catch a minor league game on a lazy hot summer evening with a friend. Sitting in the nosebleed seats with a $5 ticket, you talk, watch the game, eat a hotdog, drink a beer and dance during the 7th evening stretch. The fourth time you go, you know what to do and how to do it. Before you know it, you might have season tickets and know the players’ names. You might build a relationship with your seatmates and enjoy a continuing experience rather than a single ball game.

Synagogue attendance is the same. No place “feels like home” the first time you attend. Every congregation, whether Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox or unaffiliated, has a slightly different service than you might expect. No place can sit static, waiting to comfort you with every prayer melody from your childhood. There are different customs and even different foods for kiddush. Attending a new congregation might mean that no one will know you and sometimes, you might not be personally welcomed at your first visit.

All this is to say that if you want a place to feel like your place, with people who are glad to see you and a service that seems familiar and comfortable, you have to go often and work on it. As many of the commenters here said, learn more and keep studying at each stop on the way. Build a relationship with your Judaism, just as you would learn the traditions of your local ball team. In a big Jewish community like New York, there are tons of options. Even so, no congregation is perfect. Like people, even the best congregations may have flaws. Finding a Jewish congregational home can take work. Many times, my husband and I left a congregation after services — once after we’d already joined — feeling that this one wasn’t the place for us. It’s not always easy.

Eventually, you choose someplace, anyplace, and you join up. You buy season tickets. You don’t just buy a seat for high holidays — you get a membership. This gives you a chance to make shul friends and participate in social action projects and joyous occasions (baby namings, bar mitzvahs, aufrufs). You’ll also feel that sharp sadness when someone you know is ill or passes away. It means having someone recognize you when you say Kaddish.

In the end, choices about friendliness, egalitarianism, liturgy and tolerance may define where one looks for the right community. However you choose, the best place doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, like Cinderella’s glass slipper. I’m reminded of Michelle Shocked’s song about making strawberry jam. “If you want the best jam, you gotta make your own.” Maybe the revised refrain for this one is, “if you want your best Jewish experience? You got to make your own.”

My two cents: Put long-term effort into it and maybe you’ll be amazed by the results.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books, “Fiber Gathering” and “Knit Green.” She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, a biology professor, their twin toddlers and two bird dogs. She belongs to the New Shul of Winnipeg and serves on its board.


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