a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

I’m Back

Posted on: July 5, 2011

I just returned from a long weekend trip with friends.  Before we left for Upstate New York, I attended service at the synagogue known as BJ, B’nai Jeshurun.  I was first introduced to BJ in the book “From Ghetto to Ghetto-An African America Journey to Judaism” by Ernest H. Adams.  As I met more Jewish people, talked with my Jewish friends and explained what I’m looking for in a Jewish community and a synagogue home every once in a while someone would ask, “Have you been to BJ?”  After last Friday, I can finally answer,”Yes.”

BJ is a conservative synagogue in Manhattan.  The service was probably one of the best services I’ve experienced thus far.  It was everything I imagined a service to be in that the music was engaging yet not distracting.  The participants were engaged and seemed connected to the service.  There was diversity ethnically and racially.  There a vibrant worship. 

Let’s go straight to the Shul Shopping List.

Close to/relatively close to home or close to a subway line that’s close to home

BJ is on Manhattan’s Upper West Side which means it is not at all close to my home.  It is near a subway line that is close to my apartment but I live in Brooklyn and BJ is on 88th.  Almost the entire borough of Manhattan is between us.

A feeling of welcome and openness

While I waited for my shul date I stood a few door ways down from BJ to observe the kinds of people who were walking into the shul.  Right away I noticed both younger and older folks.  I noticed a lot of black people and people of color.  The folks at the door were welcoming when we approached.  They reminded us to turn off our phones and wished us Good Shabbos.

I have this idea that there should be people in shuls wearing name tags that say somethinglike “First Time Here?” so that if it is my first time I could approach them.  These welcomers would show you to a seat and be your “guide” through service.  This person would help you withpagenumbers, perhaps, or just sit next to you so you’re not sitting alone in an empty pew.  If you check out BJ’s website.  They have just a person whose job is just that.  Nearly everyone we encountered, whether they were ushers or congregants, greeted us with “Shabbat Shalom”.  It didn’t feel forced.  It wasn’t artificial.  To me it felt as though they were truly happy I was there.

Diversity and Inclusiveness

In terms of racial/ethnic diversity BJ gets a strong Yes.  There were many people of color in the sanctuary and most of the rabbis are from Argentina.  I didn’t do a homo scope but I think that if I came with my partner I would be comfortable holding her hand.

-Real Outreach and involvement in the community

This is hard to gauge from one visit and browsing a website.  They are hosting a “wedding” this Thursday to celebrate the passing of the Gay Marriage bill in NYS which is a great sign.  This is BJ’s Mission Statement from their website:

“B’nai Jeshurun is a passionate Jewish community that inspires spiritual searching, lifts the soul, challenges the mind, and requires social responsibility and action. We strive to experience and express God’s presence as we study, pray, and serve together. We are unified yet diverse and explore the living tension between tradition and progress. We carry out deeds of loving-kindness, foster a meaningful relationship withIsrael, and participate in serious dialogue and collaboration withJewishpeople and people of other faiths to heal the world. We welcome you to study, pray, and serve with us.”

-Active and Vibrant community

Have you ever been to a service where a stranger takes your hand during L’cha Dodi to invite you to a spinning, clapping, smiling, laughing hora that is taking place in the sanctuary?  Me either, until last Friday.  I’m not really for dancing outside of a dark club and I never did the Holy Ghost Dance in Baptist Church growing up.  Dance is not necessarily how I connect to God but I always appreciate a worship space that allows space for people to worship in that way.  I wasn’t 100% comfortable dancing the hora (I always get the steps wrong) but it was great to be in a worship space that erupted into a hora during Shabbat service.  The model of Kabbalat Shabbat service came from Kabbalist who would welcome the Sabbath bride to Shabbat.  The story goes that they would actually leave their camps to “greet” the Sabbath bride and dance with her, much like a traditional Jewish wedding.  It was nice to see and experience the joyful spirit of Shabbat @BJ. 

In a conversation I had with Noah Aronson, we discussed the role of music in synagogues today.  I am from the camp that synagogue music should inspire you, fill you with spirit and connect you to Judaism.  Synagogue music should be engaging and uplifting-Especially on Shabbat.  Songs like L’cha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem, in my opinion, should have uplifting melodies.  The idea of Shalom Aleichem, for instance, is to welcome angels to your home/Shabbat table.  Shouldn’t that welcom be happy, upbeat, and fun?

-Spiritually challenging and inspiring

The verdict is out on this one because it was only one service.  It was definitely challenging, in that the service was entirely in Hebrew with very little transliteration.  Because of my two Hebrew lessons I could recognize and know which sounds the letters made but I was always paragraphs behind and only really recognized about 10% of the service.

It was inspiring to be in a completely full sanctuary, in early summer, surrounded by many different types of people worshipping together.  I was completely in awe and at the same time very much at ease.  I am always concerned that my lack of Hebrew knowledge would take a way the meaning of service.  In my experience of attending service in Hebrew rather than English I feel more spiritually in tune with the service.  Perhaps it is because the lack of Hebrew understanding forces me to just experience the service.  Perhaps it is because the language is old, like Judaism itself and makes me feel more in tune with Judaism. 

-A sense of awe and wonder about Judaism

Because I understood only 10% of the service the other 90% of the time I was forced to sit with Judaism.  Meaning, I wasn’t actively participating in the service, but was given the space to experience it.  It was awesome and wonderful.  Awesome because it was refreshing to see not just the amount of people present but the amount of people who were engaged with each other and with the space. 

While we sat and waited for the service to begin I noticed two different sets of friends wave each other to saved seats in the sanctuary.  One group was clearly waiting and looking for their friend but the other was a young man who’d arrived alone and sat alone.  His friends noticed him and opened a space for him to sit with them.  It was sort of nice to see the community that was happening around me.

-Engaged members

Yes.

BJ’s Score=6 out of 8.  Of course there is more to my search than this list.  The list is, of course, not complete and I’m sure that as time goes on it will change.  What is important is that I find the right shul for me right now.  Knowing that it may not always be my shul, I’m looking for something that feels perfect for who I am in this moment and who I will be as a new Jewish person.  I’m excited to visit BJ again.

7 Responses to "I’m Back"

I’m interested as to what else they offer outside of services, as far as ,groups and events for 20s and 30s, volunteering, etc. I browsed their site too, but it’ll also be great to go a few more times to get the feel, ya know?
And I was seriously so freaking excited to see BLACK PEOPLE! Oh my lord!

Right? It was pretty awesome. I’ll definitely be back a few more times. I like to try to go at least 3-4 times to get a real feel for a place.

Yea, me too. Also, the whole name tag thing – gives me flashbacks to going to a new church, and the pastor having people stand up and say where they’re from!

Our President would probably love the idea of the name tags for visitors. She’s always making people put on name tags 🙂

It definitely has a Church vibe to it. There are just so many times when you walk into a new shul and are literally in a pew by your self. I don’t think the visitors should wear name takes, though. Definitely just folks who are “welcomers”

I just want to tell you that i’m in love with your blog. I’m a mixed race woman (white american and filipino) who is in love with a jew and is thinking about joining the tribe. i consider myself “in the closet” though because I still don’t have the balls to tell my extremely catholic parents. I love reading about your experiences though. I haven’t read anything on the internet that shares such a unique and wonderful perspective.

Chrissy, thanks so much for your incredibly kind words! It really means a lot to me to have folks appreciate BG&J.

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