Monday, November 10, 2008

Shabbaton Reflections, Part I of ??

I have nearly 100 blog entries from friends to catch up on between Friday morning and today, not to mention that I just spent the past few hours catching up on responding to the dozens and dozens of emails that I received since Friday. I have somehow become a very, very busy e-person. But the point of this post is to get down a general outline of the Shabbaton in Crown Heights from this weekend before it all escapes me. This will be a two parter, though I'm not sure how I'll divide it up just yet. The short of the story is that I left Crown Heights to trek back to Connecticut on Saturday night after Shabbos was over. There are a variety of reasons that will probably come out between the lines of text, but I'll summarize likely in Part II or III, which will come later. Not sure how many parts this will be, so bear with me. Let us begin.

Five students packed into a car on Friday around 12:30 p.m. to schlep to Crown Heights (CH) for this year's annual Shabbaton. For two of us, it was our first Shabbaton, and for the other three, it was like old hat. We hit the highway and one of our passengers read the traveler's prayer off his palm device, setting us up for a safe trip. It sprinkled on and off, and we all anticipated at least a bit of rain, but the trip was fairly smooth and we made it into CH with about an hour and a half to spare before Shabbos started. We skipped check-in ("not enough time!") and everyone piled out of the car and the two girls headed one way and the two guys another and I, in my infinite confusion, said "Guys, I have no idea where I'm going, anyone?" Luckily, after some gentle prodding for SOME semblance of order, I was pointed in a general direction of my host's home and after some wandering I arrived, feeling gross from the muggy weather and ready to get the Shabbaton on the road. There was only one problem.

No one told me anything. I didn't know where to go. I didn't know when to go where. I didn't know where davening was or dinner was or where the opening program was. With Shabbos fast approaching, I was frustrated because I didn't seem to have any way of getting any information. Since we hadn't registered, I didn't know the itinerary and for those of you that know me well, I'm the kind of person who needs to know what's going on well in advance. I was frustrated from square one before the weekend even arrived because I didn't know who was going, how we were getting there, or what the itinerary was. Maybe I'm a little OCD in the organizing department, but that's just how I am. So the rabbi magically showed up (baruch hashem!) with linens and a schedule for me, as well as a map so I could get around. Talk about a blessing. The sirens went off, warning us of the impending beginning to Shabbat (nearly 4:30! oy so early!), and I finished the munchies I was noshing (thank you host!) and I eventually made my way to the main building where everything was to be held, and I started to feel more prepared for everything.

The crowd was, in a word, intense. It was huge. From our school there were maybe about seven people. There were hundreds of undergraduates (and maybe some graduates, but I had no way of telling) in a ballroom and the noise level was extreme. To express how loud it was both at the beginning and later at the farbrengen, when I arrived back home around 1 a.m. that night, my ears were RINGING, as if I'd been at a rock concert. The icebreakers didn't last long because of the noise level and I spent a lot of time wandering around looking for others in the group. Eventually everyone sat down (with their schools) and there was an opening session followed by a schlep to evening services at 770 (Lubavitch Headquarters). The opening session seemed to last forever because the noise level -- a constant frustration for the speakers and leaders of the event -- just wouldn't calm itself. Maybe I'm old and lame and spend too much time shaking my fists at those darn kids to get off my lawn, but the entire weekend it seemed like there was an intense lack of respect for the rabbis who were trying to speak.

At any rate, services were definitely interesting. Now, I feel like I'm sounding really negative, and I don't mean to. There were a lot of really intensely amazing things about the weekend (the two big ones being the Shabbat dinner by the rebbetzin's family and the session on belief that I attended Saturday), but being a newbie to the world of CH and Chabad, it felt like I was a spectator, and being someone who is intensely committed to her Judaism and davening and the experience of being a Jew, it was frustrating sometimes. At services, the men went into a lower entrance and the women into an upper entrance. Now, being someone who adores the mechitzah, this didn't bug me in the slightest. But then you get into what feels like a "viewing room" where the women overlook the men's prayer hall -- there are tables in the back where the Yeshiva bochurim were chatting and davening and up front where the Shabbaton folks and others were davening. Upstairs, the women overlook the gigantic room through tinted windows with a small area at the bottom which you can see clearly through. So we get there and I'm ready to daven. Shabbat for me is so much about prayer, right? But after a while, I realized that there was no way we could know where the men were in their prayers because there was so much noise. I looked around and women were chatting, watching the men, no one was praying. Not a single one. I was so confused. Isn't this what we go to shul for? To daven in a community? After a while, I threw up my hands and started davening the service on my own around the same time one of the other girls from my group did the same. Then, the service was over and we took off for Shabbat dinner.

I finally fell back into my comfort zone. The dinner was by the rebbetzin's sister and brother-in-law, and it was to be all of the UConn kids as well as a few from Oregon who had come in, not to mention the family of the rebbetzin -- including her father and the great bubbe of the family! The Shabbat dinner was, in a word, magnificent. It was full of song and stories and discussion and the most delicious food. We did introductions, we laughed, we listened to the rebbetzin's father tell stories that were accompanied by songs to the tunes of "Yesterday" by the Beatles and "Come on Baby Light My Fire" by the Doors. We talked of parables and Torah and what it means to find your path and to follow it. The kids ran around playing and laughing and one even fell asleep on the wood floor in the corner. There was one moment, that I just can't bring myself to write about here, where I was sort of shocked and dismayed with the children, but what can you do? They're children, I guess. It reminds me, though, that we are living in funny times. The songs we sang were songs I was unfamiliar with -- "Ain't Gonna Work on Saturday," which I now love, and others. But it felt like a family. I felt like I was a part of a big Jewish family who was cohesive and comfortable. I was also excited because it was the first time I'd ever been in a house that had two separate ovens and counters and the works! I think my awe and excitement had some people giving me funny looks, but I'm the Liberal Jewish product of a Conservative Christian upbringing, so what can you expect? On our way out that night, one of the little boys was singing a song about cholent and I thought, This, this is what Shabbat is -- it's family and food and songs and stories and prayer and bentchers marking weddings and bar mitzvahs of years long past.

We left and walked back to the building with the ballroom for the farbrengen. It was late, and I -- being old and lame as I am -- was exhausted. But I forged forth, trying to soak in every morsel of the Shabbat that I could. We got there and the various events that were supposed to be going on seemed to be muddled by noise and people moving from room to room and volume levels I can't describe. I wandered around for a while, trying to find part of the UConn group, but without much luck for a great deal of time. We walked over together, and people went their separate ways. Everyone seemed to know someone, and I tried to chat with strangers. I found myself most comfortable in a room watching men dance around and sing, women beating their fists on the table to tunes they all knew but I was unfamiliar with. Eventually I grew tired and found a few people and one of the fellows walked me home in the drizzling rain. I got home that night to my host's house where everyone was asleep feeling tired, my ears ringing, my clothes soaked, trying to figure out what the evening had meant outside of my amazing time at the Shabbat dinner. Walking through the streets in my long skirt walking 90 miles a minute, I felt as if I fit in so well to the aesthetic of the community, but something was off.

I'll end this portion of my Shabbaton reflection by saying a few things about me. I don't do well with crowds. Loud environments make me anxious. I was unlucky enough to inherit much of my mother's anxiety issues when it comes to these things. The feeling of claustrophobia and anxiousness when put in close quarters with people screaming and hollering and bumping into you. I swear I've never been touched so much in my life as I was this weekend (which, I'll admit is strange considering the Chabad environment, but you have to remember that it was a LOT of undergradate kids). I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Shabbaton was probably intensely wonderful for a lot of people. But for me? I'm 25 years old. I have something going on in the Jewish couple thing, which means that sessions on Jewish dating and scoping out the meat market are two things that didn't register for me. Maybe I'm crotchety, but meeting dozens of random people who I'll likely never see again who I can't likely relate to on a delicate level because of our different outlooks and perspectives wasn't appealing. I'm a graduate student, and I have a certain way I look at life. When I was an undergraduate, I had a completely different perspective. The two crowds? Might be able to mingle loosely, but it's hard in such gigantic settings. This is probably why, to some degree, I felt left out by the people I'd come with who -- on a weekly Shabbat level -- I relate to and feel friendly with. And I'm sure that played a role in my reaction to the weekend, too.

At any rate, more to come tomorrow about sleeping in, covering my hair and what kind of reaction it got ("Are you the rebbetzin at UConn?"), the lunch and the funny jokesters, the rabbi with the amazing stories and thoughts, the seminar on belief that helped me to make an important connection with an important rabbi, the end of Shabbat, seeing the rebbe's picture everywhere and the signs of the impending arrival of moshiach, and how I ended up leaving the Shabbaton an entire day early to head back to Connecticut  -- missing my trip to the rebbe's ohel.