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Uncategorized November 17, 2014

In Defense of Conversion Rabbis

by Amy Newman Smith 

“And then the rabbis come in,” my friend explained.

“WHAT?!?” I shrieked. I had asked her, a recent convert with the same beis din (rabbinic court) that was handling my conversion, to walk me step by step through the process.

The rabbis come in? To the mikveh? My thoughts were rapid and panicked. I had met and married a fellow Conservative movement convert. Together we had grown in a different direction and were on the threshold of finalizing our Orthodox conversions after 18 months of learning and living Orthodox Judaism. We had upended our lives in more ways than I can count, lost friends who thought we had lost our minds, moved from an apartment we loved to one we hated in order to be within walking distance of the synagogue. And now, my panicked brain thought, I’m going to have to call it all off. I had learned the laws of mikveh, the ritual bath, and knew nothing could be between my body and the water. I had gotten rid of my pants, raised my necklines, started covering my hair. And now I was supposed to be naked in front of three rabbis? Oh no. That was not going to happen.

My friend, seeing the horror on my face, rushed to clarify. What I had imagined wasn’t real. It was all going to be okay. And so, on the day of my conversion, I met with the three rabbis who made up my beis din. According to the rules of the Rabbinical Council of California, our sponsoring rabbi – the rabbi who for the last year and a half had mentored us, tutored us, and inspired us through the process of becoming Jews – could not be one of the rabbis, but I had met the head rabbi as part of being accepted as a candidate for conversion, and again when we met halfway through our learning to assess our progress. After some probing questions to gauge whether I had the knowledge to keep core commandments and establish that I had no ties to other religions, no ulterior motives, and had not asked to be converted under the promise of reward or any threat, we separated to meet again at the mikveh.

In the past weeks, since the revelations that Rabbi Barry Freundel allegedly watched women in the mikveh preparation rooms via hidden video cameras – not conversion candidates, but married Jewish women preparing to use the mikveh as part of a monthly ritual – the cries have come that men have to get out of the mikveh business. Blogs, public letters, op-ed pieces. One man’s alleged criminal acts opened a floodgate of criticism. It only got louder when it was revealed that Freundel had been reported for requiring conversion candidates to work for him for free and to make donations to organizations he headed.

“There are some places and situations where males, including rabbis, should never be present. One of them is a women’s mikveh. Period,” wrote Jennie Rosenfeld on The Jerusalem Post website. In a recent Times of Israel blog post, Shoshanna Jaskoll insisted that the same rabbis who required modesty of dress and behavior in Orthodox women could not take part in female conversions without being hypocrites and were likely having “indecent thoughts” about the conversion candidate. Jaskoll quoted unnamed rabbis, and took snippets from an open letter from the one rabbi she named – Rabbi Steven Pruzansky – that served her ends. The entire letter, if one takes the time to read it, tells a vastly different story.

At the mikveh, a gentle and genteel mikveh lady kindly went over step by step what would take place. Then she gave me a full-length robe, so thick that it would not be see through even when fully wet, to put on and left me alone to change. When I indicated I was ready, she walked me into the mikveh room and waited until I was in the mikveh, giving me time to make sure I had the robe adjusted so that I was comfortable and covered. The three rabbis summoned from the room where they were waiting stepped only close enough to the mikveh to see my face, to ensure I was the same Amy Newman Smith who had sat in their office earlier that day. No Leah for Rachel, as it were. 

Then they stepped back, able only to see the top of my head. They were close enough only to see my head go under, to hear the blessings a convert says, and hear the mikveh lady say “kosher” as I immersed each time, ensuring that every part of my body was covered by the waters of the mikveh. Then they left the room, closing the door before I emerged to dress in private, a newly minted Jew. The only other moment I have ever felt so much holiness surround me was the day my son was circumcised, entering the covenant of Abraham. At both of those moments, I felt a cord that tied me back to Sarah and forward into eternity. I did not feel abused, violated, mistreated, or vulnerable. To the contrary, everything had been handled in a way that was designed to make the process both b’tznius (modest) and b’simcha (joyful). 


Unfortunately, Rabbi Freundel’s circle of victims only continues to widen with the calls of those who say his individual misdeeds demand an overhaul of the entire conversion system. (Why is it only the rabbis who need overhauling? What about male doctors? What about auto mechanics – mostly male? Where is the outrage when they mistreat, defraud or abuse female clients/customers, demanding only women fix women’s cars and heal women’s bodies?)  More importantly, do the shouters for change realize the grave injustice they do when they say “no man belongs in a women’s mikveh”? On the basis of one man’s bad actions of misusing his power over converts and breaking the law by covertly observing them – for which he has been arrested and will go through a trial and sentencing unless he decides to accept a plea deal – every rabbi is being painted as a potential villain.

Rabbi Pruzanksy said it best in his explanation of why he was resigning from his position as the head of the Orthodox conversion court for Bergen County: “Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague [Freundel] for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din . . . I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.”

Is Rabbi Freundel one of a kind? Almost certainly not. But is he the norm? The majority? Anything even close to being something other than an outlier? For this, the accusers bring no evidence. They besmirch the names of righteous, modest, caring men without evidence for their own ends. And that is an outrage. The hoped-for ends do not justify the means being used.

Let us think critically about what the hoped-for ends of these writers are. All the hoped-for ends. Only the deeply naive would believe that Jennie Rosenfeld, who is studying in a program for dayanot (female religious judges) and who calls for a system in which women would be able to oversee conversions, divorces, and other matters of Jewish law pertaining to women doesn’t have a personal stake in the outcome of this debate. If the status quo remains in place, her investment of time and money will have been for naught. Other writers have also previously laid out their objections to the current system of Orthodox conversions long before Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, and the disclosures that followed merely provided them with an all-too-convenient cudgel with which to attack a system they had already rejected.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Rosenfeld and her ilk seem not to understand that by saying the entire conversion system must be overhauled, she also implies that my conversion, that my friend’s conversion, that indeed the conversions of all women that have taken place under the current system are flawed. My conversion, the bloggers and pontificators say, is tainted. It is broken. It is in need of fixing. And to that I say, “How dare you?”

Fight for what you think is good and true. Write, write, and write some more. That is certainly your right. I am not asking for these voices to be silenced, nor am I debating that having men present in the conversion mikveh process makes some women uncomfortable, no matter how discreetly it is handled. (Mikveh with a female attendant is often uncomfortable, as well.) But I hope they remember that their stated goal is helping converts. And as a convert, I tell you honestly that their words – and the false suspicions they have put in the minds of many of those who have read them – imply that I, and women like me, entered the Jewish people within an abusive and immodest context. It is hard enough to be a convert without people who claim to be acting on converts’ behalf spreading the idea that converts have undergone something shameful or perverted. 

These articles (and this article you are reading now) are unlikely to change how Orthodox batei dinim (Jewish courts) handle conversions going forward. But they do stigmatize converts and future converts by spreading the mistaken belief that female converts have been party to something terrible rather than something transcendent. 

Writer’s Note: I have chosen to use my name on this piece because I feel it is unfair to criticize others by name without naming myself and also because I have done nothing that needs hiding. Please remember that the Torah is very clear on the prohibition of mentioning a convert’s former status, of reminding them of it, and certainly of asking intrusive questions about their past of their journey to Judaism. 

Links:Rabbi Pruzansky piece: Rosenfeld piece:
Shoshanna Jaskoll piece:

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized July 6, 2014

Blog Roundup: Female Orthodox Clergy, Israel’s Special Unit, Oprah on Shabbat, and more

Although the Jewish world is still reeling from the murders of the three Israeli boys, there have been lots of other things cooking on the interwebs.

1. Rabbah Sara Hurwitz

Orthodoxy’s first female [fill in word of choice here] came to Cleveland to speak recently, sparking locally a huge wave of controversy that is brewing within the larger Orthodox world. Here’s another response to the issue in general.

As an aside, I find it interesting that while in English, our language is moving more toward gender-neutrality, Hebrew will never be gender-neutral.  Therefore, while in English, the word “rabbi” has been broadened to include women, in Hebrew a new, gender-specific noun must be chosen, and what that noun will be is still under debate.

That said, here’s what I posted on Facebook on the subject (granted, in the middle of a conversation):

…another important question that I believe is underlying this entire discussion. It also will clarify why I don’t have a problem with men running the show in established clergy positions. That is: are you willing to accept the status quo in normative Orthodox Judaism, or are you seeking to push the boundaries to where they have not been before? I am not casting aspersion on the second option, but I will say that if your starting point is that women should have as great a role as possible within clergy then no one should be surprised when that endeavor is met with resistance and push back. I accept the status quo and proceed from there. I don’t feel I ever got mixed messages since we didn’t learn Gemara as a subject as I was never taught that men and women do the same things. Am I stupider or happier? Pathetic for not questioning and pushing the status quo, or more fulfilled internally for it? I guess everyone can make their own judgments. I’ll say this. I feel that I am reaching my potential as a Jewish woman leader doing exactly what I’m doing. I find no boundaries or frustrations. That is my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

2. Israel’s Special Ed Unit

Grab some tissues, because you’ll need them for this.  Seriously, is there ANY country like Israel???

3. Your Life In Weeks

Not specifically Jewish, but this was a good piece of mussar – wisdom that helps remind you why you’re here on this earth.

4. Oprah Learns About Sabbath

I found this video interesting from a Shabbat-observant perspective, of course, but a little cheesy from the Oprah perspective.  I like Oprah a lot actually, but what does she mean she didn’t “know” Sabbath was on Saturday?  Wouldn’t you just say you didn’t know it was “originally” on Saturday, until Christians changed it to Sunday?  There was one line in there that I loved – something like, if a door opens for you, and your faith doesn’t fit through that door, don’t walk through that door.  In any case, this is a cool guy (who is apparently famous) standing up for his religious values in Hollywood.  Thumbs up from me, for sure.

Uncategorized June 2, 2014

Amelia Bedelia and the Oral Tradition: Guest Blogger Rabbi Zee

Rabbi Zee (aka Zauderer) is a fast-talking New Yorker.  Except he lives in Toronto and has some really interesting things to say – if you can follow the pace.  He joined us in Cleveland for a Shabbaton weekend last year and I’ve been getting his weekly emails ever since.  He and his wife Ahuva and their eight children live in the Bathurst/Lawrence area, where their home is always open to anyone who wants to experience a Shabbos or a Torah class. Rabbi Zee (as he is known to his students) brings to his classes a special combination of Torah knowledge, teaching experience, and interpersonal skills.  In honor of the forthcoming holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah, Shavuot, here’s a classic piece of his on the Oral Tradition (the mishna/Talmud).  Rabbi Zee will be available to field comments and questions here.  Email him to be added to his weekly list – it’s great stuff.

“Now let’s see what this list says,” Amelia Bedelia read. “CHANGE THE TOWELS IN THE GREEN BATHROOM.”  Amelia Bedelia found the green bathroom.

“Those towels are very nice. Why change them?” she thought.

Then Amelia Bedelia remembered what Mrs. Rogers had said. She must do just what the list had told her.

“Well, all right,” said Amelia Bedelia. 

She snipped a little here and a little there.  And she changed those towels.

“Now what?  PUT THE LIGHTS OUT WHEN YOU FINISH IN THE LIVING ROOM.”   Amelia Bedelia thought about this a minute.

She switched off the lights. Then she carefully unscrewed each bulb. And Amelia Bedelia put the lights out.

“So those things need to be aired out, too. Just like pillows and babies.  Oh, I do have a lot to learn.”      
It is a foundation of our faith to believe that G-d gave Moses and the Jewish people an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text. This oral tradition is now essentially preserved in the Talmud and Midrash.                
However, there are many Jews today who are skeptical when it comes to accepting a so-called “oral tradition,” claiming that the Talmud and all the interpretations of the literal text of the Torah were the product of later Rabbinic scholars who might have had hidden agendas and fanciful imaginations.                

Some of us might be willing to accept the notion of G-d revealing Himself to the Jewish people and giving us His Torah – the Written Torah, that is – but anything other than the Five Books of Moses is circumspect.                
If we study Jewish history, we will find that this is an old claim that was made well over 2000 years ago by a breakaway sect of Jews known as the Saduccees. While they accepted the authority of the Written Torah, they rejected the oral traditions and interpretations of the Sages, and they preached a literal reading of the text of the Torah…. which led to some interesting and strange practices. I guess one could say that the Saduccees were the “Amelia Bedelias” of the ancient world.                 
I will give you some examples of what can happen when we take every word of the Written Torah literally, without relying on a much-needed Oral Tradition.                
G-d commands the Jewish people in Numbers (15:38): “They shall make for themselves tzitzis (fringes) on the corners of their garments ….. It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it …..”  The Torah never writes explicitly that we should wear the fringed garment. If anything, the Torah says that we should see the tzitzis, implying that we should hang the fringed garment (today called the prayer shawl) on our wall in a noticeable place.
And that’s exactly what the Saduccees did! They hung their tzitzis on the wall, but would never wear them.                
How about the Sabbath? It is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet in the entire Written Torah, virtually no details are given as to how it should be kept! So how are we to know what to do? Should we keep the Sabbath by lighting candles… or maybe a trip to the park with the kids was what G-d had in mind? Or maybe it should be left up to each individual to celebrate the Sabbath in his/her own way?                
The details can be found in the Oral Torah, of course. As G-d said, “You shall keep the Sabbath holy, as I have commanded your fathers” (Jeremiah 17:22) – obviously referring to an oral tradition. But I bet that Amelia Bedelia and her predecessors the Saduccees sure would have been confused!      
Let me give you one more example, which has relevance to the upcoming holiday of Shavuos (The Festival of Weeks).
In the Written Torah, G-d commands the Jewish people to celebrate the holiday of Shavuos. But He doesn’t tell them directly which day they should celebrate.  Rather, the Torah states in Leviticus (23:15) “You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day seven weeks…”  The Torah writes further that at the end of those seven weeks of counting you shall celebrate the Festival of Weeks.
Now, if we are to believe that only the Written Torah was Divinely given, but not the Oral Tradition, then we are forced to conclude that G-d was playing some kind of cruel joke on His Chosen People!
I mean, come on, can’t you help us out here a little, G-d? On the morrow of the “rest day” we should count seven weeks and then celebrate Shavuos? Which one of the 52 “rest days” of the year are you referring to, G-d? Are we going to play Twenty Questions here, or what?                    
As a matter of fact, the Saduccees, for lack of a better option, decided to count the seven weeks from the day after the first Saturday after Passover, which means that Shavuos would always come out on a Sunday!                  
Of course, the Oral Torah helps us out here as always, and tells us exactly what G-d had in mind with that very vague and ambiguous reference.                
Now, when Amelia Bedelia makes such mistakes and follows everything Mrs. Rogers tells her to do – literally – it makes for an interesting and comical children’s book, at which we can’t help but chuckle. But it’s not so funny when the stakes are higher – when the very foundation of our faith and of our lives – our beloved Torah – is taken so literally as to become vague and confusing, and, G-d forbid, almost comical.

THE OBVIOUS QUESTION                

Okay, so let’s assume that G-d gave us two Torahs – a Written Torah and an Oral Tradition along with it to clarify things – but we still have to ask ourselves why would G-d do such a thing? Why couldn’t He just write everything clearly in the Written Torah?  This way He could have avoided all the problems and divisions among our people, whereby some of us accept both Torahs, and some reject the Oral Torah, because it seems to have originated with a bunch of Rabbis, instead of being Divinely given and inspired!               
I once posed this question to a man from West Orange, New Jersey, with whom I had been studying on a weekly basis. His ten-year-old son had joined us that evening, and the young boy came up with an answer that is, in my opinion, quite profound, and also has a connection to the very first words in this week’s Torah portion.               
In Leviticus (26:3), the Torah states: “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time.”
The verse seems to be repetitious. What is the difference between “following my decrees” and “observing my commandments”? Rashi, the great Bible commentator, explains, based on the Oral Tradition, that “following My decrees” – which is read in Hebrew bechukosai tay-laychu – means that we should toil in Torah study, whereas the next words in the verse refer to the performance of the actual commandments.
It is difficult to understand where the Oral Tradition got the idea of “toiling in Torah” from the Torah’s words bechukosai tay-laychu, which simply mean “to follow My decrees.”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, once explained this strange oral tradition as follows:               
There are two methods of writing – one with ink and paper and the other by engraving on stone. The difference between the two is that when one writes with ink, the words do not become one with the paper, making it possible for the message on the paper to be erased over time. When a message is engraved into stone, however, the words and the stone are one unit, so that the message remains in the stone permanently.
The Hebrew word bechukosai, or decrees, comes from the root word chakikah, which means engraving. G-d is teaching us that if we want the words and the message of the Torah to leave an indelible and permanent impression upon us, we must study them intensely and toil in them, so that we become one with the Torah that we study and it becomes engraved on our hearts.
And that’s exactly what the little boy answered to my question. He said that if the entire Torah had been written out for us, without our having to put any effort in trying to explain it and get to the deeper meaning behind the literal text, it wouldn’t become a part of us and would leave no permanent impact.
This is one of many reasons why the Oral Tradition is so very important and central in Judaism.
Uncategorized May 17, 2013

Rav, Rabbi, Rebbe

Q:  Is it too sensitive to ask how the
‘veneration’ of Chasidic rebbes (or just Chabad? I don’t know) is
different than non-Chasidic groups? Is that what defines Chasidic Jews
as Chasidic? Are there some without ANY rebbe? Do non-Chassidic Os
venerate their rabbis? And how is a rebbe different than a rabbi? Which
is what in relation to a rav?


A.  My personal (non-Chassidic) relationship with my rabbi is described here.  In Chassidic communities, the whole structure of the community centers around the Rebbe (pronounced reh-buh).  He is venerated, respected with awe, trust, and love, and consulted on major and minor decisions.  He is approached for a blessing before travel, before business dealings, and before matchmaking one’s children.  He is approached for prayers and blessings in times of crisis, before a medical procedure, and when marriages falter.  He is honored at every milestone, wedding, bar mitzvah, and holiday.

Where the Rebbe is no longer alive, and no successor appointed, as with Chabad or Breslov, the deceased Rebbe is still venerated in memory and via his teachings as the core place of inspiration for the Chassidus (Chassidic sect).

It is a central part of being Chassidic, but it’s not the only thing that defines Chassidic living.  Insularity and eschewing of secular culture is another major factor, as well as joy, passion and song.

Chabad is different in that its Rebbe (called “the reh-bee” by the more culturally American adherents or “the reh-buh” by its more Chassidic-oriented adherents) passed away around 15 ago and, childless, did not appoint a successor (as is usually the practice).  That’s how Chabad came to be a Chassidus with no living rebbe.

Non-Chassidic Os definitely venerate their rabbis but not to the same degree.  Typically it would be either their congregational or community rabbi (called a “rav“) or a rabbi from their educational years at yeshiva (called a “reh-bee“).  All of them, in English, are rabbis.

Plurals (I find a lot of people use term one when they mean term two):

1. Rebbeim (ra-bay-im): plural for day school/yeshiva teacher rabbis
2. Rabbanim (ra-buh-nim): plural for congregational or community rabbis
3. Rebbes (reh-buzz): plural for Chassidic rabbis

Uncategorized March 28, 2013

My Dad

Hey Readers,

This is a cheap post, because I am posting the question and not the answer.  It’s a super-busy time now, although the seders are over – I’m still celebrating Passover till next Tuesday night, with my kids off from school, lots of family coming and going, and fun times.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  That said, here’s a Facebook message from a reader.

Dear Ruchi,

I know we’ve never met, but I follow your blog and I get your emails between Passover and Shavuot.

reason I’m writing you is because of my experience with my newly (about the last 7-10 years) Orthodox father. He is an ordained Conservative rabbi but he hasn’t had a congregation in over 40 years. I
grew up in a town where the closest synagogue was an
hour away. As the town grew, more Jews moved in, until there were finally
enough to have our own synagogue. My dad was not the rabbi – he had
returned to school and became a psychologist.

We were brought up
mostly Reform-Conservative. We didn’t keep kosher or even observe
Shabbat. I married a Reform Jew and we aren’t observant at all.

problem is that we drive from my home town to where my dad lives each year for Passover.
My dad has tried unsuccessfully to get us to attend his Orthodox shul.
We would prefer not to. This year he practically begged my husband to
attend and my husband tried as best he could to politely decline. My
father was more than offended. I don’t understand why it’s so important
to him that we go to his shul. He told me that he is uncomfortable at
and I quote “our church” (we belong to a Reform temple) where our daughter is becoming a bat mitzvah in October.

Thoughts?  Advice?

Uncategorized December 19, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof: an unfavorite movie

I’ve learned that Fiddler on the Roof is one of those universal “Jewy” references that people love to, well, reference.  In fact, I’ve definitely referenced it a few times right here.  And truth be told, that movie has brought me to tears – tears of deep emotion around our beloved traditions, children coming of age, the inevitable assimilation of some of our children, the endless anti-semitism.  And, too, it has made me laugh so hard I’ve had tears in my eyes (the dream scene!).  The music is absolutely magnificent both thematically and musically.

So why is it my unfavorite movie?

Here’s what I think.  See, my grandmothers, who are (thank God) still alive, remember the shtetl.  But as I suspected all along, and unscientifically “confirmed” in my recent research project on the subject, most Jews in the world do not have a living relative who remembers living in the shtetl.  So for most of them, impressions of the shtetl are largely formed by movies such as Fiddler.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask?

Well, a few things.

1. No one in that movie actually seems to know why anyone is keeping any of the Jewish observances.

The trademark song “Tradition” basically says, we have no idea why we do these things, but it’s our tradition so we’ll do them anyway.  Now, I have no need to romanticize life in the shtetl (just as I have no need to romanticize life as a modern-day Orthodox woman) but I do want the truth as I have experienced it to be told.

In my grandparents’ families, there was a deep education and connection with the meaning of the observances, such that my grandparents still recall and repeat today.  In fact, I feel that the movie disrespects their experience.  Of course I am sure that there were some families who just observed out of habit or social pressure, but an entire village?  Even the rabbi is a little clueless, which brings me to…

2. The rabbi is a fool.

Here are his most brilliant, sparkling lines, full of wisdom, depth and guidance (not).  This is still a problem today.  I see some “shtetl-era” books being issued for Jewish kids today.  Most of the time the rabbi is totally unkempt and stupid.  Again, some rabbis are unkempt and I’m sure that some rabbis don’t have particularly good advice, but for this to be the “shtetl-era” rabbi image emblazoned in the minds of your typical American Jew?  What happened to respect for our scholars and leaders, for our role models, and those more learned?  What kind of message is that for our kids?

My grandparents describe the utter reverence for their holy rabbis; the deep respect accorded them by the parents of the household; how the members of the shtetl would vie for the privilege of caring for their needs, hosting them in their homes, attending their lectures.  Where is any of that?  The question about waiting for the Messiah is a good one; why is no response given?

3. Yentl the matchmaker is a caricature but her impressions remains.

To this day when I tell people about how many in the Orthodox world meet and date they immediately think of Yentl.  Yentl of the ugly wife and the blind husband: a match made in heaven.  Granted, “dating” in the shtetl is not identical to Orthodox dating today, even when a “matchmaker” is employed, but I believe this image has damaged the reputation of the matchmaker, casting him/her in the role of “arranger of marriages” rather than how it really is today, which is “arranger of blind dates.”

I’m sure there’s more, but these are the top three that come to mind.  And lest you all think I’m just a Jewish humor grinch be it known that I love to laugh and think lots of things are funny.  But sometimes, I’ve learned, I think different things are funny or enjoyable than other Jews, because of my Orthodox orientation.  The “Jewish” things I find funny are more like inside Orthodox jokes, whereas I find “typical” Jew jokes corny.

And as far as Fiddler, I will end where I started: it’s a masterpiece and a classic.  And a bit sad, because for many viewers, this, and only this, remains the vision of our rich shtetl era.

Uncategorized October 10, 2012

Using Shul

It seems nearly every quasi-affiliated Jew has been on the synagogue quest at some point in his life.  And there are many factors that will go into making this match.  Where are my friends?  Who is the rabbi?  How is the sermon?  How often do I plan on going?  Where is it geographically located?  What are the dues?  Where does my family go?  Am I looking for Hebrew school?  What is involved for bnei mitzvah?

But I’ve seen a huge chasm in what people are looking for and what they find, and when people begin learning about shul (which is Yiddish for synagogue) and prayer and what that all involves, they will often find themselves and their families in a huge quandary that even they themselves don’t really understand.

The way I see it, there are two ways to use shul.

#1: Shul is a place to come and be Jewish as a family.  We come as a family.  We sit as a family.  How often we come depends on many things, but it’s a very important part of our Jewish expression to be there, in that Jewish space, doing Jewish things, as a Jewish family.

Also, it’s our Jewish community. With the rabbi/cantor as the leader, we, the flock (so to speak) are led, inspired, and are a family, supporting each other, attending one another’s simchas, and being Jewish together.

Having not grown up “using shul” in this way, I am not really qualified to determine what questions would be asked in this quest, so maybe you, my readers, can fill me in.

#2: Shul is a place to daven (pray).  It is a place to talk to God.  It is important not to bring young children who could disturb the main goal, which is to talk to God.  Coming on time is important, because I don’t want to miss the opportunity to… talk to God.

The rabbi may or may not be my spiritual mentor; it’s OK if he’s not, because I can access spiritual mentors elsewhere.  The other attendees may or may not be my Jewish community, which is OK, because I choose the shul based on my ability to pray effectively there.  Those factors might include: do they start/end on time?  Who leads the prayers – do I find it inspiring and a motivator to have more concentration in my prayers?  Is there chit-chat during the service or do people understand why they are there?  Is it slow or fast?  Some people find that a faster clip makes it easier to concentrate and to remain a faithful (ha ha) attendee.  Others find that a slower pace allows them to slow down and really get into it.

Is there a lot of singing?  For some, it’s too long-winded (hello, ADHD).  For others, it really sets their souls aloft, allowing them to be moved, sometimes even to tears, by the words and melodies.  People tend to join in spontaneously and organically, with a layperson leading the service, as opposed to a designated, professional cantor, because everyone in the room is supposed to be talking to God, in his/her own conversation.


Many a family has been stuck because one member of the family is using shul in way #1 and the other, in way #2.  Shuls, too, are often plagued by the rift, as some people bring young children to shul and others find it a distraction/annoyance.  Some come early, others just for kiddush.  Some want to pray, some come to schmooze.  Is this a problem?

How do you use shul?