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One Great Sukkah

On the High Holy Days we go off to our own synagogues within our own denominations to pray and be inspired. But Sukkot offers the vision of one big sukkah, or one big shul, in which every Jew can fit and feel welcome. In the Babylonian Talmud, our rabbis state: “‘Every citizen shall dwell in sukkot’ — this teaches us that all of Israel are fit to dwell in one sukkah.” The Sukkot experience requires a lot of openness and learning from those who are different from us, and as a Modern Orthodox rabbi I do get the opportunity to talk a lot about such a diverse but unified Sukkot experience.

Yet when my shul in Chicago gave my family and me four months of sabbatical to go learn, grow and explore, I decided to try to go beyond mere words and put that openness into action by visiting synagogues all over America. I hoped to look at the multi-denominational building blocks of that great sukkah that could work for all Jews. So my wife and I packed up our daughters, ages 2 1/2 and just 3 months, commandeered my father-in-law’s Dodge Caravan and set out for the hub of American Jewish life: New York. About a month later I flew out to California to see prayer and worship Los Angeles-style, and later still I drove to St. Louis to visit a small shul there. Though we experienced almost a lifetime of amazing communities, three powerful synagogue experiences stand out in my memory.

The first is New York’s B’nai Jeshurun, a unique congregation known for its upbeat spirituality and huge, young crowds. Located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the synagogue was formerly affiliated with the Conservative movement, but is now independent. While I could certainly attend a non-Orthodox, mixed-seating service, I cannot halachically daven in such a service. So as a mere observer, what could I take back with me that would work in my Orthodox shul in Chicago? Not the three-piece ensemble, nor the outstanding acoustics, both powered by microphones and speakers. Although I had feared there might be nothing to bring back, I was wrong.

I was overwhelmed to see thousands of people transformed out of their weekday beings, transported to the Sabbath world through Kabbalat Shabbat. One rarely sees such a thing. Almost always — even in my shul — the people at Friday-night services have already stopped off at home to change; at the very least they have had time to rid themselves of their cell phones and car keys. At B’nai Jeshurun, most of the attendees had been immersed in the hustle and bustle of weekday activity just minutes before, and the tunes and words of Shabbat visibly transformed them. Many were still wearing suits from work, and the tension and restlessness of their workweek lives was evident. Yet once they entered the sanctuary, they were singing and dancing. Shabbat had carried them away. The challenge is the same for synagogues of any denomination: Change the most weekday, worldly person into a Sabbath mensch. It took coming to B’nai Jeshurun for me to appreciate the power that Friday-night services have to remove the weekday rush of life.

Off to the West Coast, and it’s Friday Night…. Live! The tall, gritty buildings of the Upper West Side were replaced with the glitzy hotels and shops of Wilshire Boulevard, where the Conservative synagogue Sinai Temple makes its home. Gone was the three-piece accompaniment of B’nai Jeshurun; instead there was song master Craig Taubman and his seven-piece band. Gone were the songs of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — which unite synagogues of so many denominations, including my own and B’nai Jeshurun — and in came Taubman’s own uplifting, California-style melodies for Romeimu and Lecha Dodi. Rabbi David Wolpe gave an incredible sermon about how he had sat at the president’s table — yes, the president of the United States! — and chatted with the president. And all of this in a synagogue filled with probably 1,500 Jewish adults, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40. Wow! It was like an awesome concert based on the Friday-night service; the liturgy did not include all the halachic parts of the Shabbat service, but the crowd loved it and was inspired. I was again merely an observer in this non-Orthodox, mixed-seating environment. Again the question arose: What could I get from this service to take back to Chicago?

At Sinai Temple, the biggest surprise came at the end. Unlike at B’nai Jeshurun, this group of singles arrived ready for Shabbat, with just about everyone dressed to the hilt, hoping to net a “catch.” Shabbat did not immediately transform everyone, and cell phones did go off. Yet at the end of the energy-charged service, everyone camped out at shul instead of heading home! There were activities — for 1,500 people — in various wings of the giant Sinai Temple: lectures, Israeli dancing, schmoozing, noshing. The Sabbath might have come in slowly, but once it was there, the huge crowd wasn’t letting it go. They celebrated together, in synagogue. It was a revelation for me that people from all levels of observance or familiarity with Shabbat could be coaxed into spending the evening in shul, lost in the Sabbath and Judaism and Jews. That was a model I felt I had to bring back to my shul, one that transcended denomination or affiliation: It was a model of Jews imbibing Shabbat out of joy and desire, in the middle of the flashiest part of the flashiest city in the world. For these hip, young singles, the dream of Shabbat could trump anything the world outside had to offer.

From California we made the drive to St. Louis, down Route 55 from Chicago, driving through flat cornfield after flat cornfield; there was a numbing nothingness to the scenery. Thankfully, the police had mercy and seemed to let everyone drive as fast as they wanted. After such a dull drive, St. Louis appeared glorious: The Arch over the Mississippi was beautiful; Busch Stadium was regal, and just to see a city felt miraculous: I had arrived at the gateway to the Mississippi.

Beis Abraham is a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the historic neighborhood of University City, surrounded by Washington University. Most Jews have long since moved out of the neighborhood. There were only between 15 and 20 people in shul for Friday-night services. But the small group of Jews who go to Beis Abe are energetic and committed — and unified in a way I have never seen in a larger shul, even my own. On Friday night there was no band, no great cantor nor singer. But there was magic: Just for a few minutes, and in the back of the simple social hall where the davening took place, the 84-year-old Rabbi Abraham Magence led every single male present — there were almost no women — in a plodding, but joyful, circle dance at the end of Lecha Dodi. Everyone who could joined the circle. That circle captured the unity of Shabbat that our mystical rabbis talked about, about God uniting with the Jewish people and all the Jewish people uniting with God. That image of everyone, young and old, being dragged into one circle — that is an incredible image that needs to be transferred from small-town America to the relatively giant shuls of the Jewish world.

This Sukkot, let us accept what other Jews have to teach us in order to build the great sukkah that will bring our people and traditions together.

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