We were wedged between two walls and two wooden barriers – one draped with cheap white cotton curtains, the other allowing visibility of the religious service taking place in the rest of the room via a mesh screen.
My daughters and I, the only women attending this morning’s Shacharit service at the Orthodox synagogue in honor of my eldest son’s Hebrew birthday, and the first day he could pray with tefillin, the leather phylacteries required of Jewish men in more religious streams, stayed behind the barrier in adherence to Jewish law. Religious Jewish law. Religious segregation, in my book.
I lived in that world for a decade, so I am accustomed to the sanctuary being divided along gender lines. But, I left that world eight years ago, out of a desire to be fully included in the religious orchestrations around me.
So here’s the conundrum: women don’t show up on weekday mornings because they aren’t counted in the minyan, or quorum, needed for the service. If you don’t count, why would you show up?
But on Shabbat, the holy day of rest, women and children, whole families, come in droves to the synagogue. They sit together, they pray, they celebrate, they invite each other over for lunch or dinner or an afternoon snack and cup of tea and lovely conversation.
It’s a real trade-off: you’re not counted in the obligations, but you’re an integral part of this sense of community that happens every week without fail.
Let’s paint a different picture now. I grew up in a Reform synagogue teeming with excited members, but most families, including ours, didn’t attend Shabbat services on a regular basis. We went when there was a reason to go – a friend’s bar mitzvah, the need to say Kaddish for a deceased parent, a baby naming.
Today, my family and I are members of a Conservative synagogue. The same is true here. On Shabbat, when we go, there are few other kids for my kids to hang out with, and so their community experience becomes an experience of boredom and loneliness, of wishing for others to sit with or play with or even pray next to other than the boring adults.
What I’ve always loved about more traditional Judaism is the sense of community that reigns supreme. The constant flutter of energy with people gathering out of necessity, and a vibrant network of families to invite to your house or be invited to theirs.
It’s so great to see people you like, engage in conversation, entertain them in your home.
On the flip side, I’ve met wonderful people in other synagogues, our own and those in our community. Lovely families, so proud of being Jewish. But, like us, they don’t always (or frequently) attend synagogue services. And when I want to invite people over for a Shabbat meal, I have to think long and hard about whom to invite, and hope they’re available (without dance, soccer, or other obligations edging out religious observance).
That’s the way of the modern world, juggling religious identification with real-world immersion. I do it just as everyone does who lives on this path. And it’s leaving me wanting.
And yet, I don’t feel at home in the Orthodox world. It’s no fault of anyone there – in fact, I love so many people that I know in the Orthodox world. I love many of the traditions. I feel warmly welcomed by the rabbi in my ex-husband’s synagogue. He even welcomed my new husband, and we all gathered together without enmity.
So what’s the answer?
How can we live an identifiably Jewish life with choice and progressive observances and beliefs, be immersed in the greater culture, and yet find people to connect with, which elevates our membership in a community in the first place?
I want the inclusion of the progressive Jewish world with the traditional tunes of the service and the sense of stopping for 24 hours to just be together and notice the day. I want to invite people to my house and have people to invite! I want my kids to have friends to play with who are also taking a day away from the rest and making it special, sacred.
And I want it on my terms.
I don’t want to be told to sit over there in the corner, behind the barrier, because I don’t count. I don’t want to be told when and how long I have to fast, and I certainly don’t want my girls to be any less important in the scheme of religious observance than my boys.
But I want the flavor of an observant life.
I want the peace that comes with Sabbath observance. I want people to celebrate it with. I don’t want funny looks when I feel like offering a prayer for the bounty on the table in front of us, and I don’t want to be told you must pray now.
This morning, my daughter shrugged off the obligation to pray the morning service. Her father waved to her from the men’s section, wagging a finger of encouragement to do the prayers. She looked over at me and I said she didn’t have to, because that’s not how we live our lives.
I told her, instead, that she should find the prayers that really speak to her and recite those. “If I had to say the prayers that I like, I wouldn’t say anything,” she said in typical teenage fashion.
I told her, then, how every morning before I climb out of bed, I recite modah ani, the morning prayer upon awakening that thanks God for the gift of another day, for the continued gift of life. I like how it starts my day in the right frame of mind, I told her.
And sometimes, I want to say thank you for the goodness in front of me – whether it’s the beautiful day and the ability to walk outside, or the beautiful food on my table, or the ability to go for a hike with my incredible family.
The key to being religious, I believe, is having a desire to be grateful. It’s being engaged in this concept of reverence. It’s elevating the conversation by not gossiping, elevating a meal by eating special foods and blessing the food first, elevating our lives by choosing which activities to engage in, what shows and books are really good for our soul vs. which ones are damaging.
We live in polarities, with each way of being Jewish (or any other religion) having its beauty, and its ugliness. What is the answer, I ask? I want to find that community where I have the best of all worlds. If you know where it is, let me know.