When the president of my synagogue called me on my home phone number (only dialed by telemarketers and my in-laws) last summer to ask me to be on the committee to help our synagogue find a new rabbi, I laughed — out loud. I almost hung up the phone. What did I know about rabbis? Judaism? Organized religion?
I grew up a rather secular Jew in an extremely Reform congregation. It almost felt Unitarian. No one wore tallit in my temple (and we called it a temple — not a synagogue.) Almost no one wore kippot. We prayed mostly in English, and we sang accompanied by an organ.
My family was involved in our very Reform temple. My father was on the board, my mother hosted the new rabbi party at our house, and she became a Bat Mitzvah as an adult. I became a Bat Mitzvah when I was 12 as I read from the Torah that my grandparents gave to the temple and the prayer book that my aunt, also a member of the board, gave to me. I sat in the second row of my temple for High Holiday services with the rest of my family year after year, listening obediently to the rabbi. When he asked us to stand, I stood, and when the cantor asked us to sing, I sang.
When my religion asked, I answered. And so when my grown-up synagogue president asked me to be on the rabbi search committee, I said yes. I also have a problem saying no.
I knew several of the other committee members. Some were good friends. Others were strangers. We met frequently laying out our plan to find a new rabbi — one who would check the many important boxes given to us by our fellow congregants as well as our own personal boxes, although truthfully I wasn’t sure what my own boxes were. I had never really thought about what I wanted out of my rabbi, out of my synagogue, out of my religion.
My husband and I joined our synagogue almost 14 years ago after we had our first baby. I was told, by I’m not really sure who, that this was the synagogue for us. It was young, vibrant and growing. It had a great nursery school, and it was where “everyone” went. I showed up at the synagogue with my baby for a mommy and me class soon after my own mother died. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know where the synagogue was.
“Make a right at the 7-Eleven, go through the light and then make the sort of illegal U-turn,” someone (again I am not sure who) told me. And so I did. Two super cheery mommy and me teachers greeted my baby and me with their giant smiles and introduced me to the other babies and mes. Or was it the mommies? I wasn’t sure. A couple years later, I had another baby.
It wasn’t long before I found myself driving past the 7-Eleven, through the light making the questionably illegal U-turn nearly every morning dropping off my young kids at the synagogue nursery school, which as it turned out, was really great. My kids made their first childhood friends there as I made my first adulthood mom friends there. My kids moved on to Hebrew school there. My son became a Bar Mitzvah there and my daughter will become a Bat Mitzvah there next year. My own little grown-up nuclear family attends High Holiday services and even a few Shabbat service there, but we don’t sit in the second row — not even close. I’m still good at following clergy orders. I stand, sit and turn prayer book pages right on cue.
I sat with my fellow rabbinical search committee members last fall night after night asking carefully thought out questions to rabbinical candidates. The rabbis answered us sometimes even more thoughtfully. I took notes on many such answers. The rabbis then asked us questions. I let my fellow committee members answer. They seemed to know what they were talking about. Some had been members of our synagogue far longer than I had. Others were board members, past presidents, or lay leaders, which I just then learned, was I thing.
But then something happened, and I’m not exactly sure when, but I started to answer the rabbis’ questions. I told them about the time my husband and I hosted other congregants at our house — some friends and some strangers — to light the Hanukkah candles together. I told them about my son and the synagogue basketball team and their winning record. I told them about my daughter and her gaggle of friends she made at the synagogue going all the way back to mommy and me (I think they were the mes) and how they are kind of MVPS of their youth group events. And I told them about how when people ask me how I met my grown-up friends, I always tell them that it was at the synagogue — some chatting after nursery school drop off in the parking lot, some in the Sukkah as we ate our brown bagged lunches with our kids, and some in the hallway on Sunday mornings holding the Dunkin Donuts coffee I picked up before making the U-turn.
The rabbis defined these experiences for me. They fall under the umbrella of programming. They are newer models of engagement. I had no idea. I thought I was just having coffee with some friends. I learned that we need to explore more new programming, more new models of engagement. I came to understood that I had grown up in an old model. A lot of people had. We all sat, stood and turned the prayer book page when instructed to do so — no questions asked.
I learned that it’s okay (it’s actually encouraged) to ask questions — to figure out what I want from my rabbi, from my synagogue and from my religion. How do I want to be engaged and so too how do others? Maybe that means going to services every week, taking a synagogue trip to Israel, volunteering at a local food pantry or maybe that means just chatting in the synagogue parking lot over coffee after taking the U-turn. That’s actually how I met one of my closest friends, who when I am with her, I feel more engaged than when I sat all those years in the second row of my childhood temple.
We found our rabbi. He checks off all the boxes. I suspect he will check off more. I am starting to think about my own boxes. I haven’t yet completely defined them, but they are taking some sort of shape. I hope he will ask me more questions. I hope I will be able to answer him. And then I hope that I will be able to come up with my own questions — that I will be able to ask them, and to know that is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.