Acceptance in the Synagogue



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Must One Pay to Pray?

By Martha Katzeff

I went for a run on a recent Saturday morning right around the time that people in my heavily Orthodox neighborhood were heading to synagogue, or shul as they say in Yiddish. I felt some remorse and a trace of guilt that Saturday morning, as I was no longer part of that parade. For over ten years I had been a member of one of the Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, but eventually left because I was never going to fully commit to becoming Ba'al Teshuvah, or "return to the faith," and found the Orthodox community to be closed and unwelcoming to the uncommitted.

I did not always think this way, but have come full circle -- from my childhood resentment of Reform Temples that would not allow anyone to attend High Holiday services without a paid-up membership, to trying to convince my family that we should Kosher the kitchen and, finally, back to not quite resentment but resignation that I am not Orthodox, most likely never will be and, therefore, will never be fully accepted into this vibrant, but closed, community.

As a child, I had always felt the tug of religion and being Jewish was very important to me. If you asked me, the child, why it was so important, I couldn't really give a concrete reason. Perhaps it had been my grandfather's stories of Jew-hating Cossacks, or my Tante Yetta and her delicious cooking and exotic accent, I'll never know. But none of that mattered because my yearning for Judaism was never taken seriously by my family. I remember finding a torn and beat-up basic Hebrew language primer and trying to learn Hebrew on my own. My brother and mother thought this was hilarious. Needless to say, I was quite insulted that they thought it so funny and wouldn't help me learn the alphabet. Eventually, I lost interest in trying to teach myself this very alien language. Later, when I asked my mother to send me to Hebrew school she told me that we could not afford to join the Temple, which you had to do in order to go to Hebrew school and to attend High Holiday services. I never understood that concept and felt resentful toward a religion that made you pay to pray.

It was not until decades later that I understood "buying seats" for the holidays is a means of income for the synagogue and that usually no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. But my mother neglected to explain this to me either because she didn't know or would not dream of asking for charity. I became very resentful of my religion and concluded that it's a religion of hypocrites. After all, my friend Paula went to Mass every Sunday, Christmas and Easter and was welcomed with open arms whether or not she put change in the collection plate.

One Rosh Hashanah, when I was about 12 or 13, a friend and I got all dressed up and went to a temple in the neighborhood. We stood outside in our finery, drinking in the muffled sounds of singing wafting out of the windows. We felt sad and left out, but at the same time like voyeurs intruding into the secret world of Jews.

As the years went by, I grew more and more distanced from Judaism. I very rarely took notice of the holidays unless we were invited to some family gathering, which was always more like a secular Thanksgiving dinner than any kind of religious gathering. It wasn't until our son was three years old and one of the neighbors in our mostly non-Jewish apartment building asked him what he's doing for Christmas that I realized that I'd better at least try to let him know what religion we are.

I enrolled him in a Jewish-themed nursery school and then several years later, when we decided to move, in addition to looking for decent public schools, I started to pay more attention to whether or not the neighborhood had any Jews. We ended up in Riverdale with its good public schools, proximity to Manhattan and diverse Jewish population.

Several months after we moved in, as the High Holidays approached, I saw an ad in the local paper for free Rosh Hashanah services and was intrigued. I had never heard of anything in a synagogue being free. I asked around and was told that one of the Orthodox synagogues had this service every year for people who are unaffiliated. To me "Orthodox" meant people with black fedoras who only ate bad food and wouldn't write on Saturdays.

Based on my past history, the free service was certainly enticing. I was now pregnant with my daughter and was looking forward to perhaps getting to know people in our new neighborhood. So I took my son and off we went. The service was lovely and I came away from it with a renewed sense of Judaism.

When our daughter was born, my husband and I decided that we would like to have a naming ceremony for her. We had had a naming ceremony for our son because, both of us still being somewhat anti-Jewish at the time, we did not believe in a bris. (He was just circumcised in the hospital.) My anti-Jewishness was reinforced after calling around to various synagogues to inquire about a naming ceremony for him and being rudely rebuffed. Finally a Reform temple in the neighborhood we were living in at the time was happy to have us. I liked it there and went to the Sisterhood meetings a few times until I was told that I could not join the Sisterhood unless I joined the Temple, which we could not afford to do at that time. There it was again, pay to pray.

But now we had a girl and a naming ceremony was definitely the thing to do. Since I had enjoyed the Rosh Hashanah services at the Orthodox synagogue, I called them about a naming ceremony and spoke to the same rabbi who had conducted the Rosh Hashanah services. He was thrilled and, when I asked "how much?" he told me that there is no charge but we could sponsor a Kiddush for several hundred dollars. I said, "Well, thanks anyway, but we can't quite do that at this time." To my astonishment, he quickly said "well, that's all right, whatever you want to do is fine. A piece of cake and a bottle of wine is wonderful also." I was speechless, but recovered quickly and arranged a date. We had the naming ceremony amid much singing and dancing, and, although no one knew us, everyone acted as though we were longtime members of the congregation.

The welcoming and inviting attitude of this synagogue reawakened my childhood religious yearnings. I took a basic Hebrew reading class, went to some introduction to Judaism classes and gradually got more involved with the synagogue. Eventually, I went to Rosh Hashanah services and gladly paid for my seat. I found a sincere spirituality and warmth that I had always found lacking in Reform services, with their choirs, English liturgy and scant congregant participation. Most important, and I think this is what I could not express as a child, is that I felt at peace in the sanctuary. The beautiful haunting melodies of the Orthodox service invite participation and offer a profound sense of relief at being able to walk away from the world into a safe, welcoming cocoon of prayer.

My husband did not share my new found enthusiasm, but did encourage our children to participate and get some Jewish education with an eye toward their eventual bar and bat mitzvah. This synagogue didn't have a Hebrew School in the tradition of Reform and Conservative synagogues, but had their own free program for public school children. I sent my son there all the way through his bar mitzvah. He had a Big Brother help him with his bar mitzvah portion, and we chose to hold his bar mitzvah during regular Shabbat services rather than on a Sunday, as most of the public school children did. I remember that as my son recited his Haftorah and struggled with the blessings at the end, there was total and complete silence in the sanctuary. In this synagogue that was about as rare as snow in June.

The assistant rabbi had been my son's mentor and gave an emotional speech about my son's growth within the Jewish community. This rabbi understood the conflicts of not being observant in an observant community -- my family didn't keep kosher and we drove on Saturdays -- and he and his wife went out of their way to make us part of their world. But as often happens with assistant rabbis, he was offered his own congregation across the country. He and his wonderful family left the area and I immediately felt like I had been cut loose.

After they left, I went to services less and less often and finally stopped going altogether (although my daughter did have a wonderful Bat Mitzvah at the Women's Tefillah). I just did not feel part of the religious community because I would not commit to some of the more important aspects of being observant -- keep the laws of Shabbat and koshering the kitchen. I was rarely invited to Shabbat lunch. Only a few understanding families chose to overlook my family's non-observance and continue to be hospitable. I stopped going to Rosh Hashanah services there and drifted year to year from place to place, finally, going nowhere for the holidays.

For me the High Holidays are a hideously difficult and depressing time of year. I have yartzheits for both parents, but almost no family on either side to invite and no synagogue to go to for solace. Finally, this year I was told that a new Reform congregation had formed with a wonderful Rabbi and that maybe I would like it. I had expressed reservations about my lack of enthusiasm for Reform services, but said I would give it a try. I stayed for an hour and had to leave. I was just so uninspired and cannot get used to a congregation that acts more like an audience at an opera.

Another friend suggested that I come along to the service she and her husband had started going to in the last two years. It's an independent Orthodox minyan, held only for the High Holidays. I walked to Kol Nidre services, dressed in a suit, hat and canvas shoes, passing people I knew from the other congregation. I felt like a complete fraud. I was not observant, never will be, yet here I am going to an Orthodox service as if I were a regular member of the community. The irony is that the service was wonderful and I felt a spiritual connection to the holiday and a peacefulness that I had not experienced since I had stopped going. Finally, after several years of being the Wandering Jew, I felt I had found a place for myself.

I suppose that it shouldn't matter whether or not I'm invited to Shabbat lunch, or that I observe precious few the 613 commandments. Another dear friend once said to me when I told her of my conundrum, "God is always there, whenever you're ready." I know in my heart of hearts, that if an Orthodox shul is what appeals to me and offers solace, comfort and spirituality then it shouldn't matter that the community itself is not forthcoming to the non-observant.

But, in the end, the Orthodox community has the same pay to pray philosophy as the other two branches. While certainly no one is ever turned away from a shul for lack of funds, payment is exacted in terms of commitment. No commitment -- no acceptance, ever.


from the January 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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