I accepted my friend Sian’s invitation to attend Friday night services with her at her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, on the Upper West Side. I have to admit to feeling a sense of uneasy intimidation leading up to me going, the kind you feel when you have a homework assignment to finish or some bill to pay. Something you don’t want to do, but have to anyway. I felt I had made a promise to my friend to go and that I should do so, so what was the big deal?
There was a lot of big deal, actually. I was somehow transported back to my childhood where I was forced by any manner of adult to do these things that held so little meaning for me: go to shul, pray, be a good and observant Jew, fit in to this or that community. For various reasons for most of my life, these things held very little attraction for me. It was as if someone was trying to graft onto me an identity that only partially fit. This could have been the case for many reasons. It could have been that as a young person struggling with being gay, none of this felt particularly welcoming. It could have been that, having moved around in several neighborhoods growing up, I never felt particularly tied to these sub communities. It could have been the natural tendency of my family in questioning everything to reject belief in God.
Whatever the reasons, it was with trepidation that I walked up to 88th and Broadway to meet my freind. In the abstract, going to services with Sian was no different that the many other ceremonies and rituals in which I have participated over the past year, whether these be Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Christian or other. Objectively, this was just another culture to witness. This was just another ceremony to observe, trying to understand its purpose and mystery, trying to appreciate the meaning it holds for the participants.
But this was different, specifically because I was raised in this tradition. This was different, because I felt by turns an uneasy and a comforting recognition in the prayers and music. One thing you have to hand to this congregation, they sing beautifully and with integrity and feeling. Looking around the room during the service, I saw in the faces of people the warm embrace of community and religious bliss. It was really something. And when the time came to sing the Shema, I felt a shiver and connection to these people that was really lovely.
The other nice thing about this congregation is their clear commitment to social justice and bridging gaps of understanding between communities of differing beliefs. I have always felt that religious groupings serve two purposes for the participants. They provide a place in which to express belief and they give a sense of belonging and community to their members. In some people the former is stronger and in others the latter.
This particular congregation and their outlook is not for me, for all the same reasons I have come to in this blog over the past year. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be given the opportunity by my friend Sian to witness a loving community that gives her life meaning. And perhaps I have also been given the opportunity to let go of a few old ghosts from my childhood.