About a month ago, I left my position as an associate rabbi in a medium-sized congregation, and moved to another state to work at a pluralistic Jewish high school. There have been a lot of changes in the last few months: new city, new job, new apartment and, in a series of unexpected twists: new glasses, a new bumper and new tires for my car.
But one of the biggest changes so far has been this: When I go to synagogue now, I’m a congregant.
There are definite upsides to this. I don’t have the weight of High Holy Day sermons on my shoulders, though my mind still zeroes in on interesting news items I could use in a sermon. (I don’t know if that ever goes away). That has been replaced with the weight drawing up a syllabus and planning assignments for my classes, but also with the weight of preparing myself for High Holy Days as a layperson, the most concrete task of which is finding a spiritual home for myself.
So far, I’ve been to minyan at a Conservative shul, an in-home potluck-and-services with an aging Reconstructionist chavurah, and a trendy Kabbalat Shabbat for young professionals at a large Reform synagogue. It’s been so long since I even had the option to choose my own worship experience that I’m not even really sure what I’m looking for, but I suppose I’ll know it when I find it. I did have a moment of checking in with myself at a minyan and thinking, “Nope, still not Conservative.”
But denomination is only a very small part of what makes me feel comfortable in a synagogue. I’m not Reconstructionist, either, but the warm welcome and the deep conversations I experienced with the dozens of strangers at the chavurah made me want to go back. And even in places when the worship was completely comfortable for me, I could still feel alienated if no one approached me (though the introverted part of me also panics when everyone descends on me, which sometimes happens when I’m the only person under fifty at an event).
I’m also learning what it’s like to be on the other side of the phone when it comes to the tachlis of synagogue life. The check that I had so proactively mailed before I moved–so that I wouldn’t be “that girl” calling for HHD tickets on Labor Day–got lost in the mail. I ended up being “that girl” who called/emailed repeatedly asking if/when my tickets would be mailed (and also “that girl” who saw right through the concerned email asking “if I was okay” because I hadn’t made my pledge yet).
When I moved to North Carolina to start my pulpit job, I was enveloped by a caring and supportive community, all of whom knew that I was coming (I think there was a press-release!). I now understand the anxiety of being new to town and wondering whether I’ll have a “home” for the holidays. After years of wondering how I was going to shmooze my way across the room by the end of oneg, I now know the loneliness of standing by myself wondering if anyone is going to say hello to me.
I recognize that I have some unfair advantages. I came to this search already knowing that there is a place for me in the organized Jewish community, even though I don’t know yet where that is (or whether I’ll have to create it myself). Years of rabbinical training have made it possible for me to take the initiative and introduce my introverted self to people, though there’s still always a part of me that hopes I won’t have to. I am well-connected in the Jewish world, so it’s rare that I don’t meet someone I can’t connect to through Jewish geography. And I’ve moved to a community where I’ve lived before and where I do actually know a lot of people. I can only imagine (kal v’chomer) how it must feel to move to a new city, knowing no one, not having that kind of support, and not knowing where to start.
This High Holy Day season is going to be very different from the decade of service-leading that preceded it. And I can already tell you that, should I one day find myself back on the pulpit for Yamim Noraim, that experience is going to be different too, because I’ll know, from my own experience, what it’s like to be in the pews when the shofar sounds.