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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Places I Like to Daven

AKSE's annual meeting last night. Come the end of the month I will find myself back on the Board. That affords me a measure of responsibility though probably very little influence. AKSE is the most suitable placement for me but I cannot honestly say that I would seek it out as my preferred sanctuary. Going there fulfills an obligation to recite Kaddish in my father's memory and in previous circumstances to meet my personal expectation to honor shabbat. I cannot say that I often return to my car thinking "y'hi shem ha-m'vorach me-atah v'ad olam." Over the years, now decades, there are places that I sought out as desired destinations. As a kid, I liked attending the Community Synagogue of Monsey more than my home congregation the JCC of Spring Valley. By my late teens I had taken a liking to Rabbi Hillel Friedman and began to regard the JCC as the place to be on shabbat. Into my adult years, as geography restricted my access, my destination when in Monsey was the JCC and my annual maternal yahrtzeit donation went there. In college and beyond I would rarely miss shabbat at Penn or WashU Hillel. They had a destination value. Harvard Hillel never lured me. However as a senior resident, my one year at Beth El Quincy remains among my fondest Jewish memories.

Though I have been a permanent resident of Delaware for about thirty years, raised my family here and adhered to a good part of the Jewish tradition, the community never really captured my enthusiasm, not the synagogues, not the leaders. There is no place that I cannot in good conscience walk away from if the circumstances suggested that I should, and have on occasion. I've been to all the synagogues, paid dues to at least one place each year since my arrival but have never sought out a sanctuary here as the place I would like to be more than any other until very recently. Shalom TV introduced me to a rabbi in Baltimore that I had to check out, and was never disappointed in my three visits there. Closer to home, Kaddish brought me to the local reform congregation. That has now become my Kabbalat Shabbat destination. I really like being in each of those two places, as divergent as they seem to be.

Common threads have been elusive. I really liked all the rabbis, though the Hillel rabbis had next to nothing to do with the worship experience. Sermons that would classify as machshava, insights that I could not glean on my own, count for something but some of the Wilmington Rabbis have been able to do that without enhancing the experience of occupying space in their sanctuaries. If I had to select an attribute that links them all it might be the absence of pretense. Reform is Reform but can be executed expertly without the defensiveness to external attacks that it plays to the least common denominator. Beth Emeth and its last couple of Rabbis do nothing of the kind. It's liturgy is brief but the last two chazanim have the musical skills to make the sounds of the sanctuary sparkle. I have my preferred seat and the rabbi recognizes me as the guy who can sight-read Hebrew without the vowels, but he probably does not know my name. Rabbi Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore probably would not recognize my presence amid the several hundred worshippers that grace his shul in several parallel locations each shabbos morning. Yet I am part of the proceedings each time I am there. Again, I have my preferred seat. Despite being an OU affiliate, the mechitza is plexiglass, the Torah moves across it, women ascend the Bimah for prayers for the USA and Israel, the parking lot remains open. No suggestion that frumkeit is ranked. They are modern orthodox, with microphones and commitment to educating their kids to function as American Jews into adulthood. Retrospectively I can say the same about the JCC Spring Valley and the Community Synagogue of Monsey. They are what they are and never diminished their standards, even to the point of extinction for the JCC. The Community Synagogue had a posek, a grand one at that, but did not have Keter Kahuna to supplement Rav Tendler's Keter Torah. They were never condescending to me or to the best of my knowledge to my marginally observant family. The JCC of Spring Valley read Torah in its entirety at each specified occasion, cut no corners on siddur, and took the education of its kids seriously, for the most part. I had a dispute with the head of the teen service and preferred to stay in the main service. Nobody ever pressured me to leave where I wanted to be. Beth El Quincy was a struggling place my one year there. Conservative Judaism was in evolution in its treatment of women, requiring the Rabbi to feel his way. He looked at the laws and concluded when so many before and since conclude then peer back to justify what they have ruled. Shabbat attendance was small but loyal. The people mattered, even the transients.

The two Hillels have a slightly different legacy. They are conducted for and by students. My two returns to Penn as a geezer, part worshipper but part observer, reinforced my experience of the 1970's. There were only orthodox services in my day but the non-orthodox recognized that mechitzas were necessary to maintain community and stablity, thus accepting it. More recently, the Penn Hillel has the only true Orthodox/Conservative separate but equal parallel services that I have encountered. It is the same principle of for the students by the students. As a consequence, the fondness for the experience has lasted decades after I could no longer be called a member of the university community.

It would be rather easy to take a pot shot at my current congregation, my past congregation or their leaders. Often at board meetings or at kiddush I do. The baalebatim at these two places probably think they do everything that my preferred congregations do, from liturgical expertise to engaging their members to respecting diversity and contemporary values. By they do not seem to do it with Kedusha as the end point, striving to be a place where worshippers praise HaShem en route back to their cars for enabling the people there to grant them a holy experience.

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