I live in Richmond, Va., and I am a shul-goer. It was not always so.
Growing up in Montreal, synagogue was part of my Jewish experience, but only a part. After all, I studied at Bialik High School. My friends were all Jews. Most of my neighbours were Jews. We had a Shabbat dinner every Friday night (sometimes we picked up Côte-St-Luc BBQ). My family were (and are) members of the Reconstructionist Synagogue in Hampstead, but after my bar mitzvah, my attendance declined. After participating on the March of the Living in Grade 11, visiting Poland and Israel, I briefly gave up eating pork and shellfish, and combining meat and dairy. That lasted a year.
My Jewish awakening occurred as a teenager, when I saw a Jackie Mason comedy show on PBS. In his thick New York accent, the former rabbi contrasted Jews and gentiles to hilarious effect. I had my “come to Jackie” moment. This would be my Jewish identity: otherness, secular Yiddishkeit, cultural Jewishness. Judaism was important to me, but not religious or spiritual. In college, I went to the Hillel house every Friday, skipping the prayers, but attending the Shabbat dinner to meet women.
In graduate school, I pursued a PhD in Jewish history at New York University. I complained about New York bagels, but I ate them. I compared pastrami to smoked meat. I went to comedy shows. I joined JDate. Walking the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, I felt no need to enter a synagogue. The city’s Jewishness was so thick it punched you in the face. Sure, I liked singing prayers in Hebrew, but I did that in the shower, not in shul.
All this changed when I moved to Richmond last fall to take a job teaching Jewish studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. In Richmond, Jewishness does not punch you in the face, you have to go out and find it. I didn’t know a soul, but had the good fortune to be put in touch with a local Conservative rabbi, a bright, kind man about my age, whose synagogue (they call it a temple here) is within walking distance from my apartment.
And so I started going to shul. I liked it. I started going even more after I met the lovely lady who would become my wife. Raised Protestant Christian, she was interested in converting and eventually did. For her, Jewish rituals could seem strange and foreign, but going to synagogue felt familiar – like going to church … but in Hebrew and without Jesus. With her encouragement, we began to go regularly. We still do. I remain a skeptic in matters of faith and theology, but my passion for tradition and ritual has increased, and my definition of Jewish community has changed. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, being surrounded by large numbers of Jews. It means finding the group of Jews who care in similar ways.
People say there are 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the greater Richmond area, but on Shabbat it feels smaller. Sometimes our shul – I mean temple! – struggles to get a minyan. We hold services in the basement chapel rather than the main sanctuary. Twenty-five, maybe 30 people attend. Sometimes I like that even more. It feels warm and intimate. It’s nice to have hundreds of people for the High Holidays. That feels special. But a small group gathering every week for Shabbos feels special too.
I recognize that Orthodox Jews experience this routine every week, but I can’t compromise on my egalitarian principles. I also find the Reform service, with so much English, too unfamiliar. Living in Montreal, Toronto or New York, I never thought I needed my traditional egalitarian service to feel Jewish. But in Richmond, the genteel South, I’m a regular shul-goer, more in touch with Judaism than I’ve ever been and it feels good. Y’all should give it a try.