We’ve done it. My husband and I did something we never expected to do. We joined a synagogue.
To be totally honest we always had the lingering notion in the back of our minds that having children would require us to join some Jewish community. We just flat out rejected the notion every time it came up for discussion. We’d both grown up and out of the synagogue world jaded by the hypocrisies that render everyone in our generation a religious cynic: Gossiping ninnies in pews, bad leadership that can’t offer answers to life’s big questions beyond telling us to daven harder and donate more money, a dwindling number of people in our demographic with whom to relate. Why step in that hot mess when you’re trying to get your marriage together and your career off the ground?
When I wrote about our hesitations in joining a synagogue a few years ago, I obviously struck a nerve with more than one reader. Scores of comments from nameless, faceless supposed members of my tribe condemned and even damned my hesitation to get involved with synagogue life. I was a bad Jew for opening my mouth. My truthful observations were met with nothing less than negative attitudes that only acted as further proof of my claims. If I were in a courthouse presenting my argument, the judge and jury would’ve either sided with me or been deaf and blind; that is precisely how raw these comments were. I’m surprised I didn’t convert after reading them.
But, the thing is, my husband and I are just too stubborn for our own good. We had no intention of letting an anonymous mass of Internet haters drive us from our own identity as Jews. After all, that would be the equivalent of letting sinat chinam win, and given that baseless hatred had already destroyed one temple, we weren’t about to let it destroy our own. So, we kept doing “the Jewish thing” on our own and at Birthright Shabbat dinners hosted by less observant friends who, even after their free trips to Israel, still turned to us to “do the Jewish thing” before dinner. We did not, however, feel any urge to even set foot near a temple.
And then our son was born. Rather, our son reached an age where he started to notice the world and the people in it. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t enough and began researching activities for us to pursue together. A local synagogue offered a mommy and me group. Finding this the most relevant context in which to hopefully find friends for the both of us, we went. But, something was missing. Rather, someone was missing: My husband. We needed to do this together. So, I found a synagogue in our area that offered a family program on Shabbat mornings when he could attend, and we went together.
There were little signs along the way that this was the right thing to do. The teacher leading my son’s class was excellent, managing to pepper her instruction with equal parts humor and patience. The members, a group of which happened to be in our age range (shock) with kids in our son’s age range (double shock), were lovely and welcoming without being overwhelming. The dues were reasonable and included a graduated structure for young families on a budget, like us. The rabbi and cantor were quite pleasant on the bimah and in person. Maybe, just maybe we had found our diamond in the rough.
But it wasn’t the people, as lovely as they are, who snuffed out that last flicker of doubt still burning, fueled by every nasty comment and every jaded memory; it was God. His Torah, to be precise. God can be very lovely when He wants to be. While I have yet to figure out the rest, I do know that His Word is truth and brings shalom, because as I sat there listening to the parsha being read one Shabbat morning, the knot that had lived in my gut for years suddenly loosened and I could breathe easily for the first time in a very long time. It’s funny, really. God is faceless, yet his words carry such distinctive features that you can’t help but recognize Him whenever they are heard. This stands in stark contrast to the baseless hatred spewed from the mouths of human readers lacking any distinction beyond that of a cruel tongue.
As I watch my son grow I dread that he will have to learn the same lessons about human nature that his father and I did. I loathe to see his optimistic wonder morph into jaded disinterest. Ironically, this is why we’re taking him to temple. So that he can meet God the way our ancestors did on Mt. Sinai during that allegorical moment of wedded bliss. After all, you may condemn a person for who they are, but you can’t divorce them from it, no matter how hard you try.