Just a few weeks ago, I returned to our old temple for the bar mitzvah of a dear friend’s son. It had been seven years since I’d left that synagogue.
I had been equally looking forward to attending and worrying about it. Would members we had left behind still recognize me? Would the clergy look at me angrily? Would people think that I shouldn’t even be there?
But I also had missed the synagogue in some ways. I was looking forward to singing the familiar tunes, looking up at the beautifully painted dome over the sanctuary, and hoping to feel some peace.
It was impossible to know which feeling would dominate, I thought, as I drove over.
Leaving my synagogue hadn’t been an easy decision. For me, growing up in a Conservative synagogue with an Orthodox rabbi, my experience being Jewish had not been positive. I’d hated that girls and women were treated like second-class citizens. I hated that at home, though we lit the Sabbath candles and had a nice Friday night dinner and celebrated the major holidays, we didn’t practice the way the temple did, so I was constantly confused about my Jewishness. Hebrew school was a nightmare.
It had taken until I was way into adulthood to understand what I wanted for me.
My husband had grown up in a Reform Jewish home, actively involved in his local Reform synagogue, a place he felt was a refuge from the world he was living in. When we got married, we agreed we would only join a Reform synagogue and raise our children that way. That’s when we found our synagogue. We were members for over 20 years.
When we left, it was more my idea than his. The cost of the synagogue had gone up dramatically and our first child was getting ready to enter college. I knew how the temple felt about giving reduced dues—it was frowned upon; income and financial information were given to a few people in leadership positions to determine the rate, and I knew there was a possibility that our finances could be exposed to other members.
At that point, I had not been feeling close to the synagogue in a long time. It wasn’t just the money. When my younger daughter had finished her bat mitzvah, for example, she refused to go back to Hebrew school. I’d contacted the rabbi for help, but he had refused to meet with her, saying that I should just force her to go, or seek help from the junior rabbi on staff. That had made me bristle. My daughter was a member of the temple and should have been seen by her clergy at any time we requested.
I had also experienced cruelty from some of the members—people who claimed their Jewishness was the most important thing in their lives but who didn’t behave that way.
My husband had not been as eager to leave. He felt the pressure his mother had left on him a few years back when she’d died. Her motto had been to always belong to a synagogue and do good. He had also had more success than me with some of the temple activities.
But he agreed with me that this synagogue wasn’t where we should be anymore, so we left as gracefully as we could. The rabbi called my husband and warned him if we left, there would be nobody to bury us when we died. With that statement, we both knew it really was time to go.
For a while, we didn’t do anything about looking for a synagogue. I wasn’t feeling untethered, but rather free from paying that enormous sum every month, free from the indifference of some of the members and staff. We still practiced our Judaism at home. We celebrated all of the holidays with meals and continued our Passover Seders. On the High Holidays, we did not work, and we would take walks along a canal nearby and talk about our goals for the year. On Yom Kippur, we made sure to apologize to people we had hurt. And we’d go to my parents’ synagogue to listen to a lecture my father, an active congregant there, gives every year. For us, Judaism had always been less about actual services and more about tikkun olam, social action, adult education, and recognizing the holidays in our own way.
But then I found myself starting to want to find a new Jewish community to belong to. My husband had turned all the way around. He had begun to feel he didn’t need a community that we paid into and had a stake in. He was volunteering, giving of himself to the larger community in whole other ways, and felt at peace. For me, joining a synagogue meant that I could actively be involved in a Jewish community. There aren’t a ton of other nonsynagogue options for Jews in our area, and synagogue life was what I felt more comfortable with in terms of finding community.
We had friends who had left the temple a few years after us, and they really wanted to find a place, too. But we all knew our choices for a Reform synagogue were limited. There’s a huge Conservative synagogue only a couple of miles from our house, but we ruled it out—also too expensive and also Conservative.
I wanted a small, socially conscious, Reform, active synagogue. You would think it would be easy to find. Where I live, where there is a decent-size Jewish community, it is not.
So I had to consider places that didn’t necessarily check all my boxes. I thought that would be OK because at least I could get some of the things I wanted.
I visited a small Conservative temple about a 15-minute drive from my home. While I liked the temple director and the few members she introduced me to, she admitted the synagogue was really full of members much older than me, in their 60s and 70s. (I am in my early 50s.) And while they would love for people to come in and develop the programs I was interested in, they had no one really spearheading them at that time. My friend, who was also searching, came with me, and then she went to services there. People were nice, she said after she had gone, but they were all older.
So we checked that one off our list.
I also went to Rosh Hashanah services at a synagogue that operated out of a church, it was so small. There, we could easily afford the nominal dues, but it was almost half an hour drive from us. I knew we would find excuses not to go. It was slightly more active and had a younger membership than the last place, but the distance was a factor. I had to take that place off the list, too.
Then a friend’s father died. Our friend was a member at that last synagogue, and the cantor came to do the service. She was lovely, and my husband and I immediately thought we should join. It could have been because our old rabbi’s words haunted us—we would have no one to bury us when the time came. But even though we discussed it, we never did take the plunge.
I also looked into a Reconstructionist synagogue only a few miles away. It had an excellent reputation all around: Hebrew school, family oriented, lots of social action, tons of areas to get involved. Though I didn’t particularly want to be a Reconstructionist, I was excited when I saw all their activities and committees in the packet they sent me. Maybe that’s where we were meant to be.
But then the pricing came in and we saw, again, that we couldn’t afford to go there. I was sad, but I had to let it go. We were in our seventh year straight of paying for a child in college. We had no extra money to give.
Our friends wound up joining a Reform synagogue about 20 minutes away. I know of it, and my friend praised that they already had a social action committee, something she knew I wanted. They had liked the service they attended—people were nice and friendly and it felt relaxed.
Should I consider it, I wondered. The distance, again, was an issue for me. I didn’t want to join somewhere I knew I would never go. Our old synagogue had been about 15 to 20 minutes away, always in bad traffic, in the middle of a small city nearby. It had not been pleasant to get there, but, I reminded myself, I had for the important things. The family Hanukkah candle lighting. Hebrew school. The Purim carnival. The spaghetti fundraising dinner my daughter’s youth group put on each year. That had definitely been a highlight.
It’s easy to reminisce about the things you like and miss about a place seven years later. It makes it seem like it wasn’t so bad. But it had gotten bad and I have no trouble remembering those bad parts.
Some of my friends who are still members tell me it’s much better now. The old rabbi with the infectious smile and control over the synagogue retired. The new rabbi is much more flexible, much more modern in his thinking. Hmm, I thought.
But then I reminded myself of some of the people there who had hurt us so badly. People who said they were our friends but actually weren’t. And I remembered the feeling of a pecking order at the synagogue—where the different families stood based on the money and time they gave. And I wanted no part of that.
Before that bar mitzvah I attended, I had been both unsure about going back to the synagogue and looking forward to it. That day, I sat next to a girl of around 13. She and I rose when we were supposed to and sat when we were supposed to. I enjoyed reading the words in Hebrew that I both know by heart and know not at all. I read some of the prayers, often skipping the word God in them, thinking about my Jewishness. Calm washed over me as the familiar tunes played, and at the same time, I was anxious for the event to be over. I wanted to go back to who I was—a Jew with no synagogue, no pressure, except what I put on myself.
I recognized a former friend as she sat on the bimah, a board member officially there for the bar mitzvah, but I don’t think she saw me. I would have been happy to talk to her. A couple of other members let me in the door. I vaguely—only very vaguely—recognized them, and they obviously didn’t recognize me. I was both sad and relieved at the same time.
It’s been a few weeks since that bar mitzvah. My initial feelings of calmness and some yearning went away within a day or so. I still don’t think that synagogue is the right match for my family. I would not be welcomed back and I don’t want to go back.
I continue to think hard about my Jewish identity. I feel more Jewish than ever. I feel close to my religion and culture. I’m looking forward to Rosh Hashanah; each year, my parents make a holiday dinner that we attend, along with my sister, her husband, and family. My mother makes a family calendar with pictures from the previous year and upcoming events for the following year. Everyone gets excited to see it. I bring my holiday challahs that I make by hand every year. On Yom Kippur, my husband and I will spend quiet time together talking about our mistakes this year, forgiving each other. And I’ll talk to other people I hurt and ask them to forgive me. We’ll go hear my father’s talk. So we’ll observe the holidays in our own way. I just don’t feel the need to be at a service.
I’m still wondering if I ever will be affiliated again. And I’m still sure my Jewishness is really all mine, and no one can define it for me. Not a synagogue. Not other people. Just me. And that’s the way it should be.
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Judy Mollen Walters has published seven novels, including her latest, The In-Between Place, and many essays.