a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

It’s Time to Buckle Down

Posted on: April 25, 2012

For the past few months I’ve been floating between one particular synagogue.  I say floating because I actually haven’t been to service in well-over a month.  Mainly because of the deep depression I was in (unemployed for 6mos), partially because it’s still a schlep from my house (why are there zero liberal synagogues in BedStuy?), partially because I’m lazy.  Despite not being in synagogue on Friday nights I light candles, drink wine, and eat bread either alone in my apartment with my cat or with my lady.

Over the weekend I had an inspiring religious conversation with a perfect stranger.  She’s a member of a synagogue I used to frequent last year, Congregation Beth Elohim.  CBE is a vibrant community filled with life and energy.  I used to visit once a month when Noah Aronson was leading services, but stopped going to attend service at the synagogue I hope to make my own, Kane Street.  The draw to CBE when Noah lead service and my draw to Kane Street were the same-the music.

Joey Weisenberg, the song leader at Kane Street is phenomenal.  I was introduced to him last year and we had a long conversation about his desire to make Jews physically engaged with their Judaism.  I’m not sure if he remembers saying this to me, but he said he wants to give Jews their rhythm back.  It’s very easy to get physically swept away with the melodies at Kane Street.  The congregation is an amazing mix of young and old, queer and straight.  Joey, and who ever wants to help lead service with him, create infectious rhythms and beats on the bimah-it’s literally impossible to not clap your hands, thump your siddur, stomp your feet.  I would say that of all the communities I’ve been in the community at Kane Street, with their enthusiastic celebration of Kabbalat Shabbat, are the closest to being in a Baptist Church on Sunday morning.  Just to clarify, it’s not like a Baptist Church in that folks aren’t shouting Amen!  or Hallelujah! but, I’ve witnessed several hands in the air, lots of movement, and unabashed prayer and singing.  The spirit in that prayer space feels amazing.  I literally buzz home from service and am sustained spiritually for the rest of the week.

As I related all of this information to this stranger she said something to me that resonated.  She said that she, too, was moved by certain services at CBE and not by others.  When she wasn’t she realized that she needed to look inward and figure out how to make her spiritual connection to Judaism personal.  She looks inward to find the spirit and allows it to mingle with the spirit of a community so that when the music is a little off, or if the mood in the sanctuary is a little flat she’s able to connect with Gd on a deep, personal level.

I was stunned.  She described the very soul-work that I needed to work on.  The reason I love Noah-lead services and not others and the reason I feel unfulfilled at Kane when Joey is absent is because I’m relying on them to help create holy space, rather than doing the personal spiritual work at hand.  Today one of my favorite people became Jewish.  She told me that the mikveh was comfortable, just as I told her that it would be, but that she was feeling odd.  New Jew Free-fall is how I’ve described it.   It’s the feeling that happens when the safety net of becoming Jewish gives way to the work of being Jewish.  I’ve simply traded my conversion class and rabbis for two talented song-leaders rather than doing any real, personal work.

So on Tuesday afternoon I’ll be sitting down with a rabbi to discuss what it means that this Reform Jew-by Choice wants to daven and join a Conservative Synagogue.  I want to re-commit myself to learning and praying in Hebrew, I want to work on my neshema.

5 Responses to "It’s Time to Buckle Down"

I love her! What she said to you is the perfect way to connect during a Saturday morning B’nai Mitzvah serivice when the kid is lost, off-key, off-kilter, etc. Because those are the moments you really have to reach inward and focus to retain your kavanah.

I haven’t been going to services at all really. Not for a particular reason aside from not wanting to get up in the mornings. I am hashing out some things but those have nothing to do with whether I or show up or don’t show up. I mean, they are not reasons to avoid it. Maybe it’s subconscious?

I wouldn’t say either of my shuls are particularly interesting as far as music is concerned. Now, that may also be because I don’t attend special musical Shabbats. I don’t want to dance around and clap my hands. I’m just not into it.

Do you know the particular Rabbi you are meeting already or is this a new Rabbi for you?

:) I laughed when I read this. I’m definitely not a dance around kind of gal, but I definitely love some seriously rhythmic prayer spaces.

This is a new rabbi-sort of. He’s the rabbi at Kane street and we’ve said hello on Shabbat, but I’ve not had a conversation about wanting to join the synagogue, etc.

There are three Conservative shuls in San Francisco. One feels too Renewal/Reform for me. One feels too traditional for me. But my home? CBS? It has the right mix of Conservative worship, Reconstructionist culture, and Reform activism. It works great for me.

But I also know that if it were ever to stop working, that Emanu-El would probably be a second home.

You didn’t convert to Reform Judaism. You converted to Judaism. You studied, you learned, you went before the beit din, you immersed in the mikvah. How is what you did any different than what I did? You converted under the auspices of the Reform Movement, and I under the Conservative, but that’s it.

So thus, I will finish my rambling comment by saying that all this means is that you’ve probably found a community that could be your spiritual home. And while labels are useful at times, they’re deeply problematic at others. Go where your soul carries you. And know that G-d can be found in many places and many ways. You’ll know what’s authentic and right.

You’re so right, Natalie. I often struggle with labels and wondering how Jewish I really am in the eyes of others. Sometimes it occupies my time and sometimes it never crosses my mind.

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