Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Shul Experiences

Before I publish this post, I must say that I am completely consumed by the escalating situation in Israel.  I feel funny posting about anything else.  So, because mitzvos help protect us, these are good Psalms to say at a time like this:  130, 121, 83, 20, 91 & 143.  Also, check out the Shmira Project, where you can sign up to sponsor a solider, not with money, but with good deeds, prayer and Torah learning.  It just takes a minute, but makes an incalculable difference.  

The synagogue we attend (or, in my circles, the shul you daven at), can be a potent thing.  It “says” something about you.  You go to “this” synagogue, or “that” one.  It’s kind of annoying, but where you daven can categorize you.  Asking someone where they daven is kind of shorthand for asking them what they stand for.  Which camp do they align themselves with?  What type of person are they?

This reminds me of a joke:

A man is stranded on a desert island for years and years and years.  When his rescuers arrive, he gives them a little tour.  There are two structures, side-by-side, and he’s asked what they are.

“This is the synagogue I go to,” he replies with a note of pride.

“And what’s the other building?”

“That’s the synagogue I wouldn’t set foot in if you paid me.”


Since embarking on my religious journey nearly nine years ago, I’ve spent time in a wide array of synagogues.  Actually, too many synagogues to write about in one post, so I’m going to focus on five in this post, not necessarily chronologically.

The Out-of-the-Box Congregation

Shortly before I officially made the jump into Orthodoxy, I spent time in a delightful congregation that would best be described as neo-chassidish or maybe Jewish renewal.  I’m not sure – it defied labels.  The congregants were warm, knowledgable, interesting people who were genuinely interested in connecting Jewishly, just not through strict following of halacha.  They were mostly middle-aged, with the exception of my friends and I, all in our twenties.


What most appealed to me about this congregation was the integration of music into the service.  Besides the stereotypical rabbi-with-guitar, there were a handful of accomplished musicians who played fascinating instruments like the oud.  I enjoyed playing my clarinet with them a handful of times; it was always a satisfying jam session.  I was disappointed when I learned that playing instruments on Shabbos didn’t jive with halacha.

Not to worry, though.  Giving up playing music on Shabbos didn’t stifle my musical opportunities.  On the contrary.  I’ve had more musical gigs since becoming frum.

The Carlebach Minyan

In Bayit v’Gan (a suburb of Jerusalem), just one neighborhood over from my seminary in Har Nof, there was one of my all-time favorite minyanim.  This wasn’t a shul, per se, but an apartment where people gathering on Shabbos to daven.  It was a long walk, but doable, and even better with good company.  I only went there a few times, but when I did, I was sure to attend the Carlebach minyan.  If you don’t know who Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was, go here right now.  Maybe go there even if you know who he is.  I love his music.  Many, many people love his music, and he brought many people closer to Yiddishkeit through his music.  So I was absolutely delighted to find this minyan where the entire Kabbalas Shabbos davening was to his melodies.  It uplifted my spirit and still brings me joy thinking about it.  When I get a chance to daven Kabbalas Shabbos, I try to sing as many of his melodies as I can.

The Gates of Kindness

One of the first shuls I really davened in was a primarily ba’alei teshvuah shul which made it very user friendly.  There was always someone to help me figure out which page to turn to, there was always a kiddush with cholent and food, and little plastic cups for grape juice.  The kiddush tune was Carlebach’s Veshomru, and there was always a good deal of shmoozing, an inspiring word, and a Shabbos invitation (or two, or three).  Some very special people attend that shul, and it was with much trepidation and anguish that I decided to switch to a different shul a year or so later.

My husband actually proposed to me in that shul, by the Rabbi’s pulpit.  That’s a long story in and of itself.  It gives a nice kind of bookend-y feeling to the shul.  I really started davening there, and I ended my time as a single lady there.  A beginning and an end.  All neat and tidy like a present.

The Agudah

When you think of right-wing non-chassidish chareidim, this is that kind of shul.  I loved it.  They have this great one-way glass mechitza, where the women can see right through but from the men’s side it looks like wallpaper.  Even if you’re not into mechitzas, it’s still a pretty neat concept.  Also, the davening was no-nonsense and the crowd appropriately serious, which is how I like my davening.

The crowd there is also very warm, but it’s not a place necessarily for someone who is unfamiliar with the whole davening-at-an-Orthodox-shul routine.  I was too intimidated to start there, but it did end up to be a very comfortable place to daven.

The Bomb Shelter

ah, Neve

At Neve, the seminary I attended, there is a shul in the basement.  It’s an old bomb shelter, walls covered with holy books, Psalms and siddurs lying around haphazardly.  The benches worn and table plain, in the way of many things in Israel.  Purely functional.  It might be a grim setting if it weren’t so holy.  On Shabbos the tables were covered with white tablecloths.  This is the shul I davened at in the mornings, ocassionally on Shabbos, whenever.  I loved it.  I can still see Sephardic girls saying vidui in the morning.  I would go in after breakfast and daven the morning prayers, or the midday prayers after lunch.  Serene, quiet, perfect.

There were also classes given there after lunch, one by the hilarious Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky.  Many times he would have us laughing so hard we were crying.  So I guess that shul absorbed tears of pain as well as tears of joy.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite synagogue memories.  

Also, check out my newest vlog, The Power of Positive Speaking, over at Partners in Torah.  

(Oud photo credit: Mohammed Nairooz) 

17 thoughts on “Shul Experiences

  1. Like you, I am completely consumed with what’s going over and the Middle East right now. That said you asked about temple memories, So I will confess: kissing behind the bingo machine after Hebrew school. That’s right, you heard me, kissing behind the bingo machine. That is what my friends and I did after Hebrew school every Monday and Wednesday once we hit 6th grade.. We never did this on Sunday. What mother could complain? At least I was kissing some nice, Jewish boys. I love learning about the places that have been so special for you. I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving. Look forward to reading your stories about Hanukkah.

  2. Thanks for writing about shuls! The basement one at Neve sounds very calming and peaceful. I hope the other places that are currently being used as bomb shelters won’t be needed for that purpose much longer and can all be turned into shuls too.

    One of my “shul” memories is from when I was a Schechter student: we had shacharit in a room in the conservative synagogue that housed part of the school, and then for lunch they rearranged all the furniture and that room became a cafeteria. (We were a little cramped for space.) The school got its own building soon afterwards.

  3. My husband is Israeli and his family are all there… trying very hard to focus on regular life here. Some relatives have been called to reserve. I’m trying to remain postive… and praying a lot :)
    I love going to my husband’s local synagogue in his little sephardic neighbourhood (just outside of haifa). At first I was taken aback that women had to go in a random backdoor and sit upstairs behind a lace curtain… until I met the wonderful souls there sharing morning coffee, snacks and conversation before getting started (a bunch of imas making sure everyone’s bellies are full. I learned not have any breakfast before leaving!). Also loved the early morning walk there… watching the ethiopian women with their head scarves and multicoloured shirts, dresses, skirts walking together on their way to shul.
    What a great post. I really need to check out the Shmira Project. what a great idea!

    1. May Hashem protect your family there, and answer all your tefillos l’tovah. The Shmira Project is fabulous – definitely check it out. Your husband’s local shul sounds absolutely delightful, and lol on the going there on an empty stomach. I’ve heard Haifa is beautiful.

  4. My aunt is extremely involved in Jewish Renewal. She’s going through their cantorial program right now and we get to see her when she attends their week-long seminars at the Pearlstone. I read the session descriptions for her last seminar and they were…um…the opposite of the Agudah. :)

  5. I’m not a huge shul goer. I truly prefer davening on my own, because I feel that my connection with the infinite during the Amidah is intimate, and not something that I want to do amongst others. However, I do love going to shul for Kabbalat Shabbat, which is much more about communal joy. There are many shuls that I love the community and will visit after davening (or daven by myself in a separate room), however, in terms of prayer experiences, I have one that stands out above and beyond everything else.
    This summer, when my husband and I returned to Israel after a year in the US, we went to the carlbach shul in Baka for Kabbalat Shabbat. After a full year of fancy shuls, it was already a contrast to walk into a building that is used during the week for the Israeli equivalent of boy scouts. The room is giant and white, with flourescent lighting and plastic chairs. The only addition that has any esthetic beauty is the white mechitza that rests in the middle. Yet everyone always flocks to this shul despite its lackluster appearance. Anyway, we went there after a year in chutz l’aretz. I can’t even find the words to describe what happened… I’m choking up as I type this. They were singing every mizmor. They weren’t rushing! The davening was earnest, connected and joyful. There was dancing and hugging. There were Jews in streimels and Jews in jeans. And we were all raising our souls in connection with Shabbat. Within two minutes of singing, I was reduced into a puddle of tears. At first I was upset with myself for crying on Shabbat, but soon realized that these were tears of joy from the deepest part of me. My soul was finally being nourished by something I had deprived it of all year.

    1. I have also come to prefer davening on my own, as I haven’t really davened in shul for nearly four years. I enjoy being able to go at the pace I prefer. I do miss being able to answer “amen” and “yehei shmei raba,” to kaddish, though.

      Thank you for that beautiful memory. Very moving indeed, and I think very representative of Israeli davening experiences. I miss Israel so much.

  6. Great post! My parents go to a renewal synagogue. It works for them and makes them want to go more often than just High Holidays. We took a while to find a shul that made us happy. When we lived in the Chicago suburbs, we went to a traditional shul. Orthodox service but men and women could sit together. When we moved to NJ, we went to our first modern Orthodox shul which was in a small and tightly packed house. We took our time shul shopping after that because we needed to find the right community too. When we found the shul we attend in MD, the first thing that sold us was that during the Shabbos weekend we visited, there was a Bar Mitzvah for a boy with Down Syndrome. It was such a touching and beautiful experience and seeing the outpouring of support from shul members was enough to reel us in. Then meeting such nice people was the clincher and we bought our house after our second visit there.

  7. Cool post. I also hopped around before really settling on a shul back when I lived in Cleveland. I was in college and had already converted with a Conservative bet din and was now on my way with an Orthodox conversion. I didn’t have any real positive experiences in the Orthodox shuls I went to. Nothing terrible happened, it was just clear that it was not where I belonged. Until I went to this little store front Chabad shul. I had heard plenty about Chabad, good and bad, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was told by more than a few people that “Chabad is crazy, but those people in that shul are really great.” They were, and they are. I walked in Shabbat morning. I think had just started growing my hair out from a G.I. Jane cut at that point…Which could explain the stares I got in the other shuls…Anyway, Chabad has pretty much seen it all so they didn’t bat an eye. I sat down and a woman silently handed me a siddur, already opened to the page. After services, she turned around and said “Hi, I’m Lois. Are you hungry? Want to come to us for lunch?” And that was it. I was hooked on that shul. From then on I would walk an hour from my apartment every Shabbat, and every Shabbat I had lunch with that family. That was about 12 years ago and I still think of them as family and whenever I go back to Cleveland I catch up with them. Hands down the warmest shul experience ever.

    1. What a great story. I love the image of you in a G.I. Jane cut, and I love even more the image of you in G.I. Jane cut walking into the various Orthodox shuls in Cleveland. It reminds me of when I was becoming frum in St. Louis. I was down with covering my legs, as long as it was with electric blue knee socks with hot pink, yellow and teal polka-dots, if you know what I mean. Anyways, appearances notwithstanding, it sounds like a beautiful relationship with the shul and the family, and it’s so good to have both. Was it the storefront shul on Lee?

      1. Yup, it was! We’ve since moved away, and have been to a lot of synagogues, and no where have I felt as at home as in that shul. The Russian ladies coo over the babies, the women and men bust tail and put together a lunch every Shabbs, and the people there are lovely…i love that place and I miss it very much. I’m digging the blue knee socks! I just stocked up on some teal and blue tights at Target.

  8. singing kabbelat shabbat with 80 midrashagirls at the kotel and finding out when you’re done 200 other women are davening with you. and i love shacharit at yeshivat hakotel. a lot of singing but still a serious minyan where you have time to say a proper mussaf

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