I’m looking for a synagogue. Here are my (many) demands.
(This was published in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.)
I received an inquiry that, quite frankly, annoyed a number of people who read about it. A young man approached me about his desire to find the “right” synagogue. Here is his perspective.
I am serious about a woman who is not Jewish, and I want to expose her to Jewish community and traditions. I grew up as a Conservative Jew in the Midwest and I live in the Bay Area now, but I don’t think I’ll be able to find a synagogue that is right for me and my girlfriend. I can’t find a Conservative synagogue where all the men wear kippot when they are at shul, and I am also concerned that a Conservative shul won’t consider our children Jewish. But I don’t want to go to a Reform synagogue, because they don’t use Hebrew in services and are basically Jewish lite. I grew up with a male rabbi and I would be most comfortable with a male rabbi. Can you give me any suggestions? — Serious About My Judaism
Dear Serious: I’m going to be straight with you — this has little or nothing to do with your girlfriend’s religion. This is about you. You clearly have some very definite ideas of what Judaism needs to look like to feel authentic and to satisfy you. You’ve moved a great distance from your hometown, and the Jewish cultural norms here are different. I would bet that in the decades you’ve been gone, the norms have changed there to some extent. But you are here now, and this is the Jewish community where you are seeking connection.
I notice that you have some small and specific demands, like men always wearing kippot inside the synagogue and the rabbi being male, vs. some very large demands, such as the recognition of patrilineal descent and the use of Hebrew. My friend, you are going to have to compromise on some of your demands. Start by reconsidering the little things, and then let them go. Judaism is a communal tradition. That means the needs of the community are put before the individual desires of the members. There is nowhere that you will get all your wishes met. In fact, there’s not a synagogue anywhere in which every member is getting his or her way all the time. You can’t make all of the male members wear kippot just because you want them to. The synagogue that fits you in other ways may have a female rabbi.
You have some more significant issues to reconcile. The Conservative movement does not currently recognize patrilineal descent. Maybe it will in the future. For now, though, you will have to juxtapose that requirement with your idea that Reform Judaism is “lite.” Which is more important to you? Do you want a Hebrew-heavy liturgy, an observance of kashrut, more days of Hebrew school, greater Shabbat observance, a belief that halachah is binding? Or do you want a community that accepts patrilineal descent?
Next, do any of these concerns supersede issues like geographical convenience? A feeling of connection to the rabbi? Or a sense of comfort with the members? If you are certain you need a familiar Conservative service, start by visiting the shuls nearest to you. It is going to be a lot easier to attend activities if you don’t have to drive a half-hour to get there. It also will be easier for your girlfriend if you are in a familiar environment and feeling at ease. Introduce yourself to the rabbi and chat with members. How does the place feel? Check out the services — are they familiar on a gut level? Go to Torah study or an adult class — is the study at a depth that nurtures you?
Keep in mind that the Conservative movement does not want to reject interfaith couples, and you will find it offers Jewish avenues to giving your child a solid, halachic identity.
It is time to accept that you can’t control everything. As a woman, let me say, “Welcome to my world!” It is one in which typically men are calling the shots and getting their way. If a closer adherence to Jewish law and tradition is what speaks to you, then you will have to accept that sometimes that law doesn’t give you your way. This is also a wonderful opportunity to learn about privilege and humility. And it will benefit your relationship as you see the influence and impact your girlfriend has on your life.
Yes, you may be laughing or angry about this man’s strict requirements for a synagogue. But we make very narrow demands do this at times. It’s worth taking seriously; it’s also a good idea to really consider whether what you want should take precedence over the desires or needs of others.