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JewishJournal.com

August 19, 2011

The shul that fits

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/the_shul_that_fits_20110819

It happens most Friday nights. I close my laptop, pack stray work-related thoughts into my mental filing cabinet and begin to decompress for the weekend, when an insistent pang starts tugging at my brain. Something, I’ve long felt, is missing.

Several months ago, I finally put my finger on it: “Shabbat Shalom.” I yearn to give and receive the ritual greeting I’d always taken for granted in my youth.

Where did this urge come from? I’ve got a thriving social circle, a fulfilling job and a wonderful boyfriend. But increasingly, I crave that sense of community, that Jewish-flavored togetherness that blossoms in synagogues, particularly at the end of the week. I’m starved for Judaism, consumed by a gut-level hunger that cannot be sated by a bagel sandwich from Noah’s.

And so, at age 27, I’m back on the market. I’m shul shopping, and I won’t settle until I’ve found “the one.”

Easier said than done. I’m in that gray area age-wise that’s become a demographic black hole of synagogue affiliation — post-youth group, yet pre-marriage and pre-children. Few shuls offer programming meant for me. Even fewer are affordable to a recession-weary “young professional” like myself. I don’t want to be a swinger forever. I want to settle down and commit to a congregation, spiritually and financially. However, doing so will depend on overcoming some practical barriers.

Not to mention some emotional ones.

It’s been about a decade since I walked into a synagogue to worship, simchas aside. I was raised at a mid-size Conservative shul in New Jersey, a warm place filled with family friends and baby sitters. At services, however, it was the holiday nusach and stained glass windows that captured my fancy, rarely the liturgy. Through eight years of day school, I mouthed prayers by rote rather than by devotion. When I packed my bags for college, I left Judaism behind like an outdated sweater. I knew it still hung in a closet back home, but it no longer fit my life.

Four years in Boston and five in Sherman Oaks passed with almost no thought given to joining a traditional, brick-and-mortar synagogue. Like many of my peers, independent and living hundreds of miles away from the religious institutions where we grew up, I didn’t see the point. What could possibly be there for me now?

And on those occasions when I did step through sanctuary doors and pick up a siddur, the emotions I felt were largely unpleasant. First, there was guilt. Hadn’t I betrayed my family, my teachers and my heritage by turning my back on religion? Who was I to waltz into a holy place after such a transgression? Then, self-consciousness. I swear, I used to know the words to this prayer. Now everyone can hear that I don’t. Who am I kidding? I don’t belong here anymore.

In time, these worries began to ease. I was able to keep blood flowing to my Jewish heart by way of a friendly alternative minyan that meets in a Studio City dining room a few times a year. Also, I couldn’t shake the hunch that Jewish tradition had more to teach me than what I’d gleaned in day school — lessons, perhaps, that were relevant to me now.

So, after a 10-year hiatus, I’m ready to rejoin a synagogue community.


The Search Begins

The Valley was the natural place for me to start my search. There are probably plenty of congregations “over the hill” whose services I’d enjoy, but let’s face it: If getting there means slogging through the traffic that perpetually clogs the canyon passes, chances are I’m not going to make the effort all that often (sorry, Friday Night Live, I’ll never join your ranks). Besides, the Valley has more than a dozen Reform and Conservative congregations. I decided, on principle, that I should be able to shul-shop sustainably. There must be a service locally that fits my needs.

My search began close to home — very close. Since moving to my Sherman Oaks neighborhood, I’d wondered about Temple B’nai Hayim, the pint-size Conservative shul on the corner with about 120 families. Recently, I stopped in for its 7:30 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat service (I prefer Friday evening worship to Saturday mornings, when I practice the religious ritual of sleeping in). People turned to smile and welcome me as I took a seat in the snug sanctuary. But, in attendance were mostly seniors and families with children. Discounting synagogue employees, there was only one other worshipper in my age cohort. We gravitated toward each other like magnets.

Turns out that Janel Rao, 31, had already done the synagogue crawl herself. “You name it, I’ve been there,” she said. “This place is small and cozy. You can get to know everyone in the room. I like that.”

I do, too. But I also like the feeling of worshipping with a roomful — or at least a handful — of my peers. A visible 20- to 30-something presence is high on my list of criteria when judging whether a shul is right for me. Luckily, it’s also high on Rabbi Beryl Padorr’s list. Within five minutes of meeting me after the Oneg, she had already invited me to a brainstorming session to map out ways to get other young people in the door. Impressive.


Not Quite Right

Next stop, Temple Judea in Tarzana. The relaxed, musical vibe on the nights I went made my first Reform Shabbat experiences warm and moving. Having all the worshippers wear nametags throughout the service was a welcoming touch. Another pleasant surprise came as I was leaving one night. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, concerned he’d neglected me during the Oneg, chased me down to make sure I’d enjoyed the evening. What a friendly way to make a newcomer feel important.

The biggest drawback for me at Temple Judea was that services start at 6:15 p.m. After being 20 minutes late — twice — something tells me it might not jibe with my workday. Shabbat is much less relaxing when it’s overshadowed by the stress of getting there on time.

More convenient for me was Temple Aliyah’s 8:15 p.m. service on a recent Friday in Woodland Hills, although relaxation was definitely not on the schedule at the Conservative synagogue’s untraditional monthly Rock ’n’ Roll Shabbat. Theatrics abounded at the high-octane performance by Hazzan Mike Stein and his four-piece rock band, which included a Van Morrison cover and a hip-hop interlude. “No lighters please, folks, as this is Shabbat,” quipped Rabbi Stewart Vogel, who worked the crowd like the emcee at a Catskills comedy revue.

I found the atmosphere entertaining, like an extended-family reunion/Jewish rock concert. But spiritually, it didn’t speak to me. I prefer Shabbat to be a quieter affair — more whisking away, less Whisky a Go-Go.

An outdoor summer Shabbat service with Valley Outreach Synagogue similarly missed the mark for me. Held at a community park near Agoura Hills, the evening felt more like a Getty Center summer jazz concert than a call to worship. The 100 or so attendees relaxed on beach chairs and blankets, basking in Cantor Ron Li-Paz’s sonorous baritone but rarely joining in. Some even brought their dogs. Intermittent yapping and the squeals of children playing catch provided the backdrop to much of the service.

No doubt, the casual atmosphere and preservice picnic—hallmarks of their special summer services—were appealing for families with kids, which constituted most of the audience. But as the only young adult there, I felt isolated. And I couldn’t get into the contemporary pop songs performed during the service, like Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me,” and Kristy Lee Cook’s “Like My Mother Does.” Call me old-fashioned, but Top 40 radio hits are not, in my book, an improvement over prayer.

I have yet to check out Valley Beth Shalom’s “Rimonim” Kabbalat Shabbat service, which was on hold all summer. But I’ve felt dwarfed by the Encino shul’s sheer size when I’ve attended Saturday morning services in the past. Ideally, I’d like to sample each synagogue more than once before crossing any off my list – relying on one-off judgments is hardly fair. First impressions, however, are hard to shake.


Getting Closer

One of my favorite experiences took place in Leo Baeck Temple’s backyard. Nestled among the hills in the Sepulveda Pass, the Reform synagogue held Friday evening services under the stars in a verdant alcove that seemed to amplify its warm spirituality.

During Ve-Shamru one night, Rabbi Rachel Timoner and Cantor Linda Kates danced into the circular seating arrangement as congregants sang over Kates’ unimposing guitar. Timoner later passed out photocopied texts and we broke into chevrutot for a midservice study session. How much more democratic can you get? My favorite services are those in which I feel invited to participate — like my voice matters. Here was the antithesis of that lost-in-the-crowd sense I feel at many larger congregations.

Still, Leo Baeck doesn’t always have this camping/retreat ambience. Services move back inside in the fall and the start time moves from 7:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

But something tells me the congregation’s friendly vibe is in full force year-round. By the time the service ended on my first visit, Karen Strok, the enthusiastic temple board member who sat in front of me, already knew where I live, why I was there, where I grew up and my middle name. Joel Allan, 33, told me about Leo Baeck’s “under 40” chavurah, Generation Baecks (Generation X — get it?). This five-year-old group goes bowling, takes mixology classes and hosts potluck Shabbat dinners at each other’s homes. Finally, signs of synagogue-affiliated life among my age group!

“The idea is to create a social network and a Jewish place of connection for people in their 20s and 30s,” said Timoner, who faced her own struggle rejoining Jewish life in her 20s after a long absence. “We want people this age to feel like they can come in and have instant community. We want them to connect with each other, to connect with Judaism, and to feel like Judaism is a meaningful and relevant part of their lives.”

I found a similar approach at Valley Ruach — on a larger scale that extends beyond synagogue walls. Hosted by Adat Ari El in Valley Village yet open to the unaffiliated, Valley Ruach is a thriving spiritual and social network of Jews ages 21 to 39, and the closest thing to Friday Night Live in the 818. “Oh,” I thought, walking into the group’s study-and-snack session on Shavuot, “so this is where everyone’s been hiding.”

In one member’s Valley Village apartment, 18 Generation X- and Y-ers gathered for a lively evening of schmoozing and Torah study. For the first hour, everyone socialized over bagels, hummus and, for Shavuot, two homemade cheesecakes. By the time we organized for chevruta study, the camaraderie was palpable. Here was all the zest of a USY convention with none of the awkward high-school politics.

“This was the first place where I felt like I was really part of a community,” said Samantha Levenshus, 24. “It’s nice to have this group of like-minded people.”

Friendly inclusivity and irreverence were the orders of the night (“The rabbis are basically saying ‘Don’t be a dumbass!’ ” was one memorable quote from effervescent discussion leader Jessica Kendler). Jewish festivities among friends — what more could I want?


Affordability

Well, how about a snappy price tag? Valley Ruach charges a low fee per event that’s hard to beat. Its monthly Shabbat services, which draw crowds of 30 to 80 and include a kosher catered dinner, are a steal at $10 to $12. To bolster the worship schedule, board members recently worked out a deal offering joint membership to Valley Ruach and Adat Ari El at accessible yearly rates — $180 for ages 21 to 25 and $250 for ages 26 to 30. That’s a nice discount from the $495 individual membership rate Adat Ari El offered last year.

The question of affordability hovered in the back of my mind like a vulture throughout my search. Assuming I found my fairytale fit, a glass slipper of a congregation that fulfills all of my desires, the question remained: Would I be able to afford membership?

I don’t have kids to warrant supporting a synagogue’s early childhood center, religious school or other family-oriented programming. I also don’t have a spare $1,000 lying around to gamble on a membership that might be right for me. I understand the benefits of paying toward my future with an institution, but in a contest, paying my DWP bill is going to win, hands down.

“Dues restructuring for young professionals is necessary if the synagogue wants to attract those under 30 without children in the school,” said Elana Vorspan, 31, membership vice president of Adat Ari El and a Valley Ruach board member. “There aren’t many young people who find joining on their own worth it.”

Try 8 percent. That’s how many Jews ages 21 to 40, without children, said they belonged to a synagogue in a 2004 San Francisco survey. Los Angeles’ overall affiliation rate is historically higher, but L.A.’s young adult population today is starting to look more like San Francisco’s, said Bruce Phillips, sociologist and professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.

“There are so many options for how you can spend your Friday nights,” said Daniel Sissman, 29, an American Jewish University student working toward his MBA in nonprofit management. “You can spend them with family, have dinner with friends or do an alternative experience like Shabbat yoga. … Synagogues have to compete with all that.”

Congregations are starting to recognize this. Many have lower membership rates for the under-30 crowd (although definitions of “affordable” range from a generous $125 at Valley Beth Shalom to a staggering $1,152 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue). Some also offer a new-member discount. While these measures ease my initial sticker-shock, they don’t address the likelihood that many young adults — myself included — still won’t be able to afford the full adult rates when they hit the big three-oh. Given this economy, more than a few will still be living with their parents.


The Glass Slipper?

So, where does that leave me? I already know I want to affiliate. I’m excited by the budding enthusiasm for young professional programming at several local synagogues – including the latest 20s and 30s group, the Social Jewish Network, currently coalescing at Shomrei Torah. Maybe I’ll take a second job to support my shul habit. But before commitment comes spiritual connection.

A couple of times on my journey, I’ve felt “it.” An at-homeness. A harmonious joining of frequencies. The particular comfort of a puzzle piece snapping into place. I know I’ve found “it” when I’m not thinking of where I’m going after services on a Friday night, what I’ll do when I get there, the event lineup for the rest of my weekend. I know I’ve found “it” when I don’t want it to end.

I haven’t decided yet where I’ll spend the High Holy Days this year, but wherever it is, I hope “it” is there with me.

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