The synagogue nearest to my new house is the second-oldest in Los Angeles. Recessed from the street in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Highland Park, it’s so small that it nearly looks like a house — albeit one with lovely stained glass windows. The Rabbi, who used to be a dancer, seems to have brought new life to the place, but the congregation is still so small that it can’t support a traditional Hebrew school. The shul “has roots in conservative Judaism” but is unaffiliated.
I know all this because as soon as I moved from the west side to the east side of Los Angeles, I Googled the heck out of the place and, of course, did a drive-by. I’m intrigued, and I’m curious, but I haven’t been inside Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, and I can’t decide if I want to.
Oh, not this old chestnut again, you’re thinking. But listen. We all know that non-Orthodox American Jews are increasingly uninterested in synagogue attendance and membership. We’ve seen the studies. Only 7% of conservative and reform synagogue members are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a 2010 survey, and that number doesn’t exclude those college kids who are still on their parents’ memberships. What percent of post-college but pre-parenthood Jews belong to shuls, let alone take interest in them? Surely the number is tiny.
But I’m open. I want to be sold on a shul. I’ve already visited most of the conservative synagogues in the Los Angeles area and, for one reason or another, found them wanting. I’ve come to realize that what I want in a shul assuredly does not exist, which is why I’m avoiding setting foot inside the walls of my new neighbor.
Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.
Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?
Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.
This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long!
In spite of myself, and in spite of the huge mechitza looming up in front of me, and in spite of the old-world divisions between the sexes, I enjoyed the whole experience. There was this authentic chasidic warmth in the air. The rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) made a point of introducing herself and getting to know me. All the other women were very friendly, and the rebbetzin’s little grandchildren ran riot, creating a lively atmosphere. Not forgetting, of course, the rebbetzin’s delicious honey cake served during the kiddush at the conclusion of the services. The whole experience, was, for lack of a better word, heimish.
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