In the midst of the chaos of moving to a new city with my partner, I recently attended Friday evening services for the first time in several years.
There wasn’t one single reason I hadn’t been to in a synagogue in so long. In college, I discovered how at ease I felt expressing my Judaism in alternate spaces, often organized and led by my peers. After college, I lived for a long time in a community where I was the only Jewish person. All of these experiences helped me grow as an individual, and in fact strengthened my Jewish identity. On the inside, though, it sometimes felt like I was changing in ways that distanced me from my home community and from other formal, institutional Jewish spaces.
Growing up in Charlotte, the music of Shabbat evening is what made Friday night services meaningful for me. The songs and collective chants helped me focus on the present moment. However, that particular community of my childhood, the one which set my expectations and preferences for Jewish ritual, has changed – and I have, too. The overall Temple Beth El community endures and moves forward; but the way my teenage self experienced services was tied to that specific community and that specific time which will continue to exist only in my memories.
And so in that moment, in a new city, I had mixed emotions about returning to a more traditional worship service. Would I still feel understood and accepted by the community? Would the spiritual experience calm me down and clear my mind of the endless small decisions that had dominated my week?
This worship community was a roaming, non-denominational congregation, and they met in the social hall of another local synagogue on this Shabbat. Immediately, I felt my mind clear as I quietly sang along to familiar tunes. It was immersive, it was joyful, and it was comforting. Even though I couldn’t participate with my full attention, as I needed to focus on page numbers and unfamiliar traditions in this new place, the effort was worth it. By the end, the young clergy and song-leaders had impressed me with their presence.
At the same time, it was my first experience going to shul with my partner, which meant that I was considering both my own spiritual experience, and hers as well. Would it be a good fit for us? I suspected it would, because she had suggested it for us as a good compromise: we both wanted a justice-oriented Jewish space. I craved more lively music, and she wanted more traditional prayer elements that recall her Conservative upbringing.
On the way home, we discussed the evening and decided while each of us could identify ways that it didn’t represent our ideal worship experience, the service was worthwhile for both of us, spiritually and socially. While we both might have preferred this or that, each giving up a piece of our “perfect” ideas of worship allowed us to pray together in a space that offered us both a satisfying spiritual experience. That’s a community I can support.