A Jew in the Pew

You know what I’ve learned over the past two days? It can be awfully nice to experience Rosh Hashanah as a civilian.

When I started rabbinical school, I immediately started working on high holidays, which meant that I was lucky to get a single holiday meal that wasn’t dominated by anxiety around upcoming service leading. During this Rosh Hashanah, I went to three holiday meals: a delightful dinner after services on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and two lovely (late) lunches after morning services on both days. By late lunches I mean starting around 2 and ending around 5. I mean, get there and have a seat and eat some dips and some mains and some dessert and drink some wine while you’re at it, because you have nowhere that you need to be. I mean, stroll back on home along with all of the other lunch-goers about the city and have a relaxing evening, because you don’t, in fact, need to review the nusakh for the next day or go over your d’var one more time. I mean, this is kinda awesome, isn’t it?

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Awesome like these flowers in my neighborhood.

At the same time, it’s probably a good thing I’m becoming a rabbi, because as happy as I was to be a civilian, I sort of missed leading services. When the hazzanim (cantors) sang the parts of the liturgy that only the service leaders typically sing, I found myself wanting to join in. I wanted to carry the Torah around. I wanted to blow shofar. And, y’know, it feels pretty great to simultaneously love this time of non-leading and look forward to getting back in the saddle next year.

I don’t have pictures from Rosh Hashanah, but I wish that I did. The three places where I attended services (because I was a civilian who got to pick where to go!) were different and wonderful in their own ways, and I wish that I could show you each of them. Instead, I’ll just tell those of y’all who are interested about them.

At Kol Haneshama, a reform congregation, I enjoyed a short and simple Erev Rosh Hashanah service. The rabbi was an American man who spoke largely in Hebrew but also threw out some translations from time to time for us English-speaking folk. We started out with a Joey Weisenberg niggun that brought me right back to the two unbelievably awesome classes that I took with him at RRC. The man is a master of melody, and hearing a tune of his that I knew so well in a place that was brand new made me feel an instant happiness and a deep sense of connectivity. Walking home, I folded in with all manner of Jewish folk traveling from their various shuls to their various dinners. While I didn’t get lost walking to and from Kol Haneshama, I did get lost walking everywhere else I went during Rosh Hashanah, and for the most part I enjoined the ensuing wanderings.

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For First Day, I went to Tzion, a  very egalitarian Conservative community that does this amazing blend of ashkenazi and sefardi melodies and has a very nice flow of leadership shared amongst the (female) rabbi, the (male) hazzan, and congregants. Services were held in a basement of a community center, and they were long. I got there at 10, about an hour after they started, and was just in time for barchu. I took a break at 1, when they started musaf. For comparison, the synagogue across the way finished around 1. I don’t think that having long services is a good or bad thing, as different folks like different length services, and I imagine I’ll be back for a shabbat sometime soon.

This morning, I went to Nava Tehila, and, well, it was pretty much perfect for me. Nava Tehila isn’t a permanent institution, so they hold prayer in different locations. Today was in the yard of the Natural History museum, which meant that our “synagogue” comprised a collection of chairs under a canopy of colored cloths. The instrumentalists sat in the middle, with the congregation fanning out. For me, it was a perfect mix of traditional prayer and contemporary song. The prayers included feminist language that I so love and that is often left out here in Jerusalem. The shifting of leadership was beautiful and fairly seamless. The Torah service was especially moving. For one thing, my view of the Torah was partially blocked…by a tree. One eitz hayyim (Tree of Life) connected to another. When the hazzanit paraded the Torah around the congregation, the sun glinted off of it with incredible beauty, and, nature girl that I am, I felt completely whole.

Then came the group aliyot. Since coming to Israel, I’ve written a lot about being here, in this place. The first aliyah today was for everybody who wanted to echo Abraham’s saying to God “הנני– Hineni- Here I am.” I’m often shy about going up for aliyot, but I went up for this one without hesitating. It fit so perfectly into what I want for this year. A number of others came up with me, and since many did not have their own talitot, my tallis was hoisted up to cover several heads so that we could all bless together. I thought of the stains that I still need to try and remove and how, at that moment, they truly didn’t matter– that the tallis was still whole and so was I.

During the shofar service, I felt a similar wholeness. I’ve always found the shofar to be powerful, but during this morning’s service, sounding the shofar outside under the trees, there was something transcendent. I got chills as I thought about the history of the instrument, of how ancient the tradition that we were enacting, of how soul-piercing it remains. I looked around at the congregation– people of all ages, some with eyes shut, some staring rapt, some just contentedly. Even the dogs (yes, there were dogs davening with us) perked up. I was filled with immense gratitude that the shofar hasn’t been lost to time, that it is something I will be able to pass along to my future communities.

We finished the service with Nava Tehila’s rendition of oseh shalom, which is one of my favorites. Everybody sang openly. Smiles were real. It was amazing. I was so very happy. My New Year was sweet as honey. I hope yours was too.

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