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.
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.
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
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.
(Oud photo credit: Mohammed Nairooz)