Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping #5: Getting Conservative

Believing I had taken premature swipes at the Conservative service, I chose a Conservative synagogue known for its younger, more spiritual, livelier crowd for this week’s shul hop. Read More

By / August 18, 2011
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Believing I had taken premature swipes at the Conservative service, I chose a Conservative synagogue known for its younger, more spiritual, livelier crowd for this week’s shul hop. I first visited Bnei Jeshurun this past Simchat Torah, the day we celebrate finishing the cycle of reading the Torah. I found a raucous party and got caught up in the dancing that winded around the sanctuary. This time I decided to go both to the Sabbath night service and the Sabbath day service to get a more holistic feel for Conservative Judaism, and with hopes to replicate the unbounded spirituality of that previous holiday excursion.

Friday night, I entered the sanctuary with the other worshipers, drenched by God’s pre-Sabbath gift of heavy precipitation. But the moment I walked in, the emotional warmth of the congregants dried my rain soaked suit. For a moment, I felt at home. Over 300 people partook in the singsong service that mimicked the style of Rav Shlomo Carlebach. The service made use of his songs, and the congregation danced throughout the shul during the prayer in which we welcome the Sabbath Bride. I felt out of place in my formal wear, with those around me wearing jeans, polo shirts, business clothing, open toed sandals, plain white button downs shirts, pretty much anything from the Old Navy to the J-crew catalogue, but not suits.

The two-tiered sanctuary displayed a highly ornate, convoluted style, arabesque almost. It sported a color scheme of teal blue, muddy red, and darkish green; the ark, a complexly carved house of its own, wore organ pipes as its crown.  Stained glass windows with symbolic pictures of the twelve tribes and Jewish holidays adorned the wall. Above, I saw a complex tangle of metal piping that had the look of a concert light show fixture. The cantorial team continued this concert theme. Entering from the back door, which doubled, in my mind, as a back stage, was the chazzan team: four members of the band, two lead singers, two back up singer/instrumentalists (keyboard, bongo, tambourine,) who took their respective spots so the performance could begin.

Despite the livelier crowd, my impressions from last week’s Park Avenue Synagogue experience persisted. The band hit every note, every call received its response, but the limits imposed, the boundaries uncrossed, kept the spirituality at bay. If prayer, according to Heschel, begins at the boundaries of our souls, then the fulfillment of the correct, prescribed formulas present a hurdling block to real expression. In that vein, I guessed that the spontaneous dancing and clapping occurred at the same juncture each week. Of course, since all organized prayer relies on the rigid formulas to give a body to spiritual outpourings, I cannot lament the ritual aspect, but somehow, the perfomative aspect, the clothes of prayer, feel more important here than the body to which it provides shelter and warmth. Somehow, the controlled chaos of the Chasidic shul seems to tap into an essence of prayer that works for me, one that appreciates the need for words chosen by the fires of tradition, but spoken in a manner that both evokes and signifies the mystery of our souls reaching out to the Almighty. Here, a sense of calm instead of urgency pervades the prayers.  I asked myself: Can prayer rise from the calmness of song, not from the desperation of a tired, weary soul? Even in its most communal form, prayer, to me, is the silent cry of a deeply lonely being amongst other lonely souls, all seeking together the wonder of God. Thankfully though, in response to my previous Shul Hopping piece, I received kind, warm, and insightful replies from other Conservative Jews who not only understood this problem, but explained that leaders internally struggle with this issue. I must express my gratitude for their open and honest conversation. With this reiteration in mind, Bnei Jeshurun opened me up to a more disconcerting aspect of the service.

The most striking component of the Friday night service was the physical beauty of the people in attendance. The plethora of pretty people provided an insight into the mechitza, the partition which separates men from women, which usually makes me feel uncomfortable. Not that I advocate for the quarantine-like partition of other synagogues, but the need for separation made more sense here because the physical immanence of an attractive woman commanded my attention (and hers mine, one can only hope,) more than the attempt to transform a transcendent god into one of immanent warmth. I know this objectifies women into sexual objects, so perhaps I deserve to sit behind the veil. Either way, this social aspect of prayer diverts me from actual prayer. Instead of staring at the words on the page, I stare at the women next to me, in two rows in front of me, on the opposite side of the room, who might have just sent me a flirtatious smile.

The dancing provides no respite from this social aspect of prayer. During the dance, I consciously chose a space on the winding snake of dancers between two young attractive women. I cannot be the first person to have attempted this move. I felt unholy, not guilty, as if I am mixed the wiring of some important machine, misusing it. Not to say that a shul should not provide a place to meet women or men, but worship, ideally, does not entail the creation of a dating marketplace.

The next day I arrived on time only to find myself the only person in my age bracket. I assumed younger people would stagger in with time, but even until the end, the majority of the worshipers were of the older generation. There is something deeply sad that my generation, regardless of denomination, shows up only for the shorter, showier Friday night service, if at all, while only the older generation appears for the longer, quieter, less spiritually “engaging” prayer.  Where do we go, or stay in, as the rays of sun beckon us to prayer? I tell myself that I cannot account for the summer factor in which people go straight from Friday night davening to summer homes, but speaking to the elder generation they too lament the dearth of younger faces in their main services, a lament that echoes throughout all of the denominations.

The empty seats where last night sat multitudes feel empty in the way of spiritual death. Thinking about this as I read Heschel’s similar critique in his book on prayer entitled Man’s Quest for God, I cannot help but raise a few questions of myself and my generation. Do we not feel the pangs of eternal loneliness rattling our souls? How do we hide from the inherent sadness of life to the extent that we do not seek salvation in the answer of at least a search for God? When did we, as a generation, stop searching for something more? When did we grow content with the fleeting promises of culture, of human love? Do we not even yearn for the warm embrace of a community over the warm embrace of our morning covers? From whence this breakdown? Did we lose an essential part of ourselves to cynicism, or does the complexity of our current lives: finding the right job, the right partner, the right friends, the right place to live, engross us so much that we shut off the still, small voice of God, of anything larger than our immediate selves and worries?

Or perhaps, we all feel these stirrings, but synagogues no longer provide outlets for these feelings. We seek religious venues elsewhere, in our communal meals, on our couches, through personalized spirituality, at concerts, in conversation, through traveling, in the quiet murmurings of our voices at night. Perhaps we only see synagogues as the dusty old houses of our parents’ generations that provide, at best, an opportunity to socialize.  We view synagogue attendance like all else in our lives: as a choice. Either you do or you do not. Not a big deal. Which is true. Ultimately the choice is our own, but how many of us choose not to go to shul out of strength, out of the knowledge that it doesn’t work for us as opposed to apathy and cynicism? Maybe most, I probably err too much on the side of simplicity or I extrapolate too much from my personal intuition, but something in me believes that we as a generation turn an apathetic eye towards religion. If this sounds judgmental, then my words betray my intentions for I partake in this apathy. I simply seek to understand it.

We seem to assume that the problem must lie in the experience of shul: it does not speak to us, it’s boring, outdated. Alternatively, we assume, each generation must find its own voice, and we, like a pubescent teenager have not found our own comfortable voice, yet. Heschel though, points us in a different direction. Instead of looking outward towards the externals of the shul, instead of creating a place to feel socially comfortable, instead of changing the siddur, we need to open up ourselves to the necessity of prayer. Instead of worrying about how the shul can draw us in, we might need to learn how we draw ourselves to this timeless tradition of synagogue. Maybe God doesn’t speak to us because we don’t speak to Him, Heschel opines. This requires work, commitment, but I can think of little else that demands our spiritual attention than the possibility of self-transcendence, of connection to something larger than ourselves.