Monday, January 7, 2008

Here we go a shul-ing, a Conservative shul-ing.

I started 2008 out right, at least I think I did. Despite a horribly, gut-wrenching stomach ache on Friday evening, I went to shul. That is, I went to the Conservative shul that's just a little nearer to me than the Reform one I was going to up until now. I guess I can't say I'm giving up on the Reform synagogue, but it just wasn't cutting it. Emptiness is the word I would use to describe the services and the general atmosphere. And maybe the fact that I went to this Conservative shul on a young adults night is giving me some kind of euphoric view of the Conservative shul in a nutshell, but I'll take that. And I'll run with it.

I thought I was late, and that's okay in the Jewish circle it seems. I remember going to Hille meetings and being the first one there. Then folks would show up 5 minutes late -- Jewish time -- and then others would come 10/15 minutes late -- Israeli time. But it turned out I had the service time wrong and was just on time. I'm not sure what the makeup of the shul is like, but I get the impression that there's a big congregational hall and then a few little rooms for smaller kabbalat Shabbat services and for special programs like the one I was at. The place was packed, though. I mean, they had to bring in extra chairs and the room had to have been filled with 60+ people. I looked around, not knowing anyone, and actually felt at ease, like I was home. All the men wore kippot and everyone was singing. It actually felt participatory, but not in that forced way. Not like these were almost-b'nai mitzvahs trying to appease their parents before falling off the wagon.

The service began and ... I'll admit it: I'm pretty much a virgin when it comes to the Conservative service. I remember the first time I'd gone back in Lincoln and being utterly lost and confused about when I was supposed to speak and when I wasn't. The second time I'd gone to the Conservative shul in Lincoln, I was too in awe of the fact that my 8th grade teacher was there to discuss the Holocaust to pay attention to the service. So I followed along best I could, and about one-quarter of the way through the service I was absolutely on. It's interesting to me how the new Reform prayerbook resembles the Conservative one -- with gleanings, Hebrew on one side and English on the other, translations here and there. It's a way of making it personal, with the community.

It's strange for me not to stand up for the kaddish, though, and I don't know that I would ever feel fully comfortable sitting through the kaddish while those in mourning stand and recite the full prayer. The thing is, ever since hearing a Reform rabbi's perspective on the subject, I've been unable to understand why the community does not stand as a whole. The rabbi likened it to the Red Woods -- they could not stand, in their hulking, mighty beauty, without the support of the roots of those around them. This, he said, is the same as the community holding up those mourners. I think it's a beautiful image, and it will always sit with me when I hear the kaddish.

The rabbi's sermon was engaging. But not just engaging. I mean, it's easy to engage the audience; the difficult part is keeping them tuned in. He spoke about the four promises, which led to the four cups at the seder, which led to him telling us about all of the interesting ways that secular traditions work their way into our religious traditions. He emphasized that it is not where these things come from them, but the way we see them in our tradition and what they come to mean. It's interesting, because I read the Torah portion last week and the four promises were, of course, super important, but I didn't dwell on them. I passed them over like anything else. At the same time, it's minorly hard to read a lot of the Exodus knowing that it'll be rekindled for Pesach in several months :D

The night ended with people piling into a local apartment complex's party room for board games, food and drinks. It was just chill, relaxing, and after a nice Jewish guy took me under his wing and introduced me to a few people, I felt like I'd found a nice little Jewish community I could potentially be a part of.

I'm excited to go back for a normal service, just to see whether it's as lively, engaging and friendly. I'm not sure how much of the Young Adult crowd just comes for those specialized services and how many come consistently, but here's hoping. I guess the crux of the reason for me to go back was that even though it was a Young Adult service, I didn't feel like the service was less intelligent or engaging than it would have been for a normal Shabbat service. Sometimes Young Adult stuff is quick, short, moronic and set up so that you can get in and out and shmooze with some hot Jewish folk. I mean, we all know that people go to Young Adult services to survey the produce, right? But for me that's only half of it. I like a little substance with my prowling, darn't!

So I have some reading, researching and investigating to do. I want to know what that great dividing line between Reform and Conservative is. And while we're at it, I'd like to toss Reconstructionist in there. Perhaps I'll work my way up to Orthodox at some point. Sometimes the lines are blurred and to me the only difference sometimes appears in the clientele or simply what building people go to. I know that there is a lot more to it, but I will be completely honest right now and say that I converted Reform not just because I identified with the movement at the time, but because it was the convenient choice. The Conservative shul back home was unwelcoming and bleak and unengaging, and I'm not the only person who would tell you that. I'm sure it's changed now, as it's cycled through a rabbi or two. But my experience on Friday was nothing like that I experienced those years ago. And I know it isn't just a movement, but it's also the fact that the community is different. The city is different. The people are different. There's a lot at play, I get that.

But I haven't felt that happy and at ease and engaged in my Judaism in quite some time. Here's to you, Conservative shul. May you continue to keep me on my toes.