A Pull Back, A Leap Ahead
It was a long, slow, gentle pull, barely noticeable, not even stirring any sense of curiosity on my part. It was a slight tug back toward something I already knew, something familiar in my past, which I had left behind several years ago. There was no need to look back and acknowledge it, and less compulsion to consider it seriously. I had made my decision back then and easily made my peace with that decision. I was comfortably, in my own parlance, post-synagogual. What does that mean? It means that while I cling to my Jewish identity and take a reasonable amount of pride in that; and maintain a few, highly selective acts of observance—eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, fasting on Yom Kippur, enjoying Passover seders, lighting at least one night’s worth of Hanukkah candles while giving gifts to my children—I have no interest in, nor feel any need to pursue, congregational life by actually joining a temple.
My issues with temple membership have as much to do with a dislike of the structures (particularly the fee structures) of belonging to a temple as with the practical facts that my kids are beyond religious school and bat mitzvah age, and there is no synagogue near my home that I would wish to join, if I wished to join a synagogue, which I didn’t. I had, instead, carved out an autonomous set of values, beliefs, and practices that enable me to live as a Jew on my own terms, without the need of belonging to any specific shul.
For example, rather than confess my sins in the midst of a congregation, as tradition dictates, I have for the last several years spent my Yom Kippur afternoons alone in nature, having out-loud, one-sided conversations with God (my idea of God). These are very thorough: I look back on my year, my failings, and my blessings. I praise and ask forgiveness as I promise to do better. All the while I am walking in woods or on shores, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching God’s creation. It is very cleansing and I emerge from my nature bath feeling refreshed as I look forward to a break-fast feast of bagels and lox, blintzes, kugel, and herring.
Best of all, it’s free and accessible to all, whereas at a temple you have to be a current dues-paying member to enter a High Holiday service; if not, then you have to buy a ticket at a price that could get you a front-row seat at an Eagles reunion tour. My feeling has been that not only was I getting a better deal being off on my own, I was also having a better, more meaningful experience than if I had been at a temple.
As a Jew, I often piss off other Jews with my frequent criticisms of Israel, its government in particular. I am not much in line with the modern idea of Zionism, which seems to be about capturing and settling every inch of land, regardless of who is living there or might have rights to it. Growing up in Sunday School, there was lots of talk about “Jewish values” but I can’t recall a single Israeli leader since maybe Yitzhak Rabin who has personified such values. Instead, Israel acts very much like the fascist regimes that led indirectly to its forming. American temples often fundraise on behalf of Israel. I refuse to give a shekel to Israel.
Bar mitzvah boy, February 14, 1976
But gradually, over the last few years, I’ve found myself returning to temple. At first, it was simply that my elderly father who no longer drove required rides to and from Torah Class at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, the congregation in which I grew up and became a bar mitzvah. While it wasn’t required, I chose to use the hour by participating in the class myself. I was welcomed into the group and initially was known chiefly as Paul’s son, the kid who had to fetch his father’s coffee and make his bagel to his meticulous standards. But from the get-go, I was drawn into the practice of Torah study. Though I had eschewed temple life, had no weekly observance, and didn’t believe in God (at least a God who dispensed favors to the pious), I had always enjoyed reading Bible excerpts. Throughout my adult life, any time I stayed in a hotel or motel, I went looking for a Gideon’s and would read a random chapter before bed. Now, in Torah Class, I found I had good questions to ask and interesting perspectives to share. My father would occasionally offer something but in time he preferred to sit back and listen to what I had to say.
Then, in January 2021, my father died. In the height of the pandemic, the funeral was very small. I delivered the eulogy. The Jewish rituals around mourning, which I had always admired, served us well. When I returned to daily life, I returned also to Torah Class. Though my original reason for going was gone, I got a lot out of it on my own and was still a welcomed member of the group. In a sense, I felt I was standing in for my father though it is my own enjoyment that keeps me schlepping to Newton on Sunday mornings. I think for the other members I serve as a reminder of my father, though they accept me for who I am and what I bring to the class.
This past Yom Kippur, I elected to forego my solitary nature walk and go to services at Beth Avodah. This was entirely to honor my father within the congregation in which he had been a member since 1973. I knew that there would be a plaque for him on the wall for deceased members, which would be lit up on yahrzeits and days like Yom Kippur when we formally remember the dead with what is called a yizkor service. I wanted to see his name on the wall so I paid for a ticket (I entitled myself to a reduced price for being a relative of a member, though that member was no longer living; perhaps my last sin for that year). It was an amazing service. The rabbi, Keith Stern, is a wise and wonderful leader with whom I’ve been pretty close since 1999, when we first met prior to my mother’s funeral. The music was great. It was nice being greeted by members of Torah Class and other people I knew. Mainly, though, it was the vibe of praying and working through the liturgy within a congregation of fellow Jews. That was the thing I had told myself I no longer needed. But it’s an amazing feeling, being in a crowd doing the same thing, focused on the same readings, songs, and prayers, and recognizing that you’re doing it alongside other temples and congregations throughout the state, the country, and the world. It’s a palpable connection with other human souls that you can’t get alone in the woods.
Sometime after that, I received an email from the temple, acknowledging my ongoing participation in the community through Torah Class and inviting me to officially become a member. I was amused at first, then felt gratitude that my involvement—limited though it may have been, at least in my eyes—was recognized and valued. But I didn’t take it seriously. After all, I was decidedly post-synagogual. So I said thanks but no thanks.
Mind you, back in the day, as a young parent, I was very involved in temple life. We belonged to a temple in Malden, near where we lived, and I joined the Brotherhood and began writing and directing the annual Purim Spiels. I was well known in the congregation but it was an old, small, and poor temple, and we, too, were poor. We had trouble paying the dues and without enough people to cover for financial laggards like myself, there was tension and we felt shame and guilt, and ultimately left the temple. Financial problems were one of the triggers that broke up our marriage, but both my daughters went to religious school and each became a bat mitzvah, and while my ex-wife became a member of a different temple, I began my exile from organized religion and religious organizations.
Then, just recently, my girlfriend and I were invited to a wedding and also to the Shabbat service the night before. It was a pretty standard service, I knew all the prayers and songs (though they used some new melodies) and I had that revelation that as a reasonably well-educated Jew I can insert myself in most Judaic contexts and feel prepared and acclimated, ready to read along in Hebrew and blend in with the others. There were certain moments that triggered deep emotional reactions, tears even. There was a power in the experience that I could not deny.
I began thinking again about this invitation to join Temple Beth Avodah. What were the pros? The cons? Other than paying for the privilege, I couldn’t think of too many drawbacks. There is distance, a good forty-minute drive from my home to the temple, but they also do services over Zoom. I don’t need their programming for youth, but there would be opportunities for me to deepen my own involvement if I so chose. I would be supporting a congregation that had welcomed me back. In addition, there were ghosts there from my own past when I was in Sunday School and the youth group—though not all of these were pleasant as I was a fat, shy kid who didn’t socialize well among my peers. Still, I am not the boy I was then and I believed I could exorcize the worst of those memories while continuing my family’s membership there that, as I said, goes back almost fifty years.
My girlfriend, who is Jewish but has zero Jewish education or background, was actually the one who convinced me to accept the membership offer. Maybe she could see better than I could admit to myself that my involvement at Temple Beth Avodah was important to me, and was something I needed at this point in my life. And so I accepted. I am no longer post-synagogual. I’m not ready to give up nature walks—God can be found anywhere, after all, and where better than in nature?—but I am ready to be more Jewish. Last night I lit candles and did the blessings for the lights of Shabbat and for the deliciously moist Cheryl Ann’s challah that will become a weekly tradition.
That’s how a gentle pull became a tug I could no longer ignore—and is now a leap of faith. My temple membership is something I do for myself because it enriches me; but I also do it in honor of my family’s ties there, which will ennoble everything I do at Temple Beth Avodah from now on.
Ken Yehi Ratzon (Let it be so) כן יהי רצון