September 11, 2008
How I returned
One afternoon, our teacher suggested we all march down and meet Mishkon's new woman rabbi, Naomi Levy. The class consisted of six young single men -- we said sure.
And the moment I saw Naomi, I knew I wanted to marry her.
From there on out, a group of us gravitated to a back row of the synagogue and devoted every Shabbat to hoping she would fall for one of us. We were in our 20s, unmarried and smitten.
Fortunately, I had an enormous advantage over the other young men: I didn't have a job. They were all busy young professionals. I was just young.
Naomi taught a class called, "Love and Torah," every Wednesday at noon. There was my opening. My calendar happened to be clear every Wednesday at noon -- actually, it was clear pretty much every day at noon.
So I showed up each week to learn with five young mothers and the rabbi. The moms figured out my plan immediately. Naomi just assumed I was really into Torah.
She was teaching the "Song of Songs," a biblical love poem.
On the day our class studied the line, " ... and his fruit was sweet to my taste ...," I brought a quart of huge, ripe strawberries from the Santa Monica farmer's market for everyone to share. Another time, as we read, " ... I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense," I pulled out a baggie of frankincense and a baggie of myrrh, which I had bought the day before after driving 45 minutes to a bodega in Burbank. If you want to snag a rabbi, it helps to read ahead.
The next Shabbat, Naomi let me walk her to her apartment door after services.
"But you should know," she warned me, "I don't date congregants."
"Fine," I said, "I won't join."
The fact is, not joining a congregation came naturally to me. I was intrigued by Judaism, and I was growing to love Mishkon's members -- many are friends to this day -- but I was not interested in spending Friday nights and Saturday mornings in shul.
I had grown up attending a large, suburban synagogue, had a bar mitzvah and never went to services more than twice each year. And each time I did, the rote prayer readings, the cantorial repetition, the organ music -- all of it -- sent me into a spirit-sucking stupor.
Eventually, Naomi caught on to my intentions. It may have been when I offered to cater the synagogue's second-night seder, or that I offered to head up the Chanukah latke-making effort for 200, or the afternoon I left a mix-tape on her doorstep for her post-Shabbat listening.
Or it may have been my sudden 100 percent shul attendance record.
"I don't even go to shul that much," Naomi told me.
Of course, after we got married in 1991, neither did I.
Because I was a sailor in the relatively uncharted waters of being a male spouse of a rabbi, Mishkon's congregation had no expectations of me and no obvious role.
The congregants didn't seem to mind that I was rarely in shul -- or at least didn't mind out loud.
When Naomi decided to leave Mishkon after we had our second child, I was more relieved than she was. A rabbi's spouse sees firsthand the pressures of the job: the strains of synagogue politics, the lack of control over one's time, the constant sense you can never fulfill the demands both of your congregants -- no matter how many -- and of your own family.
Frankly, I also was looking forward to being free of the guilt of not showing up at services.
In leaving Mishkon, Naomi got to be home more with our children, write books ("To Begin Again," "Talking to God"), teach and lecture. But as the years passed, she yearned to return to the pulpit. It was -- is -- her calling.
But as much as she loves the pulpit, Naomi, like me, finds the modern synagogue problematic. She believes that Judaism offers people a sense of purpose, a mission to heal society and a fulfilling spiritual path, but that too often standard synagogue services don't attract or inspire Jews, much less compel them to commit to a community.
"My interest was in the people who don't go to shul," she told me. "The outsiders."
Of course, one of those outsiders was living with her. I liked everything about being Jewish but going to shul. I had seen her infuse the traditional services at Mishkon with her particular spirit and warmth, and I hoped there was a way she could build on that somehow, somewhere.
But how or where I hadn't a clue.
I couldn't see either of us at a mainstream synagogue: Her goal was to reach the Jews who, for whatever reason, were turned off to Judaism, and they were unlikely to be found inside established synagogues.
One day, Naomi simply decided to do it— to create for herself her dream of the ideal service and the ideal congregation.
She had no financial backing, no business plan, no building, no place to hold services. She had a supportive but somewhat skeptical rebbetzin.
Naomi decided to call her congregation "Nashuva," Hebrew for "we will return." She launched it one night with a few friends and a husband seated around our dining room table. As we all shared our vision and offered our help, I felt my role shift from rabbi's spouse-in-the-background to fellow organizer, planner, volunteer.
I, who had happily stayed on the sidelines of synagogue life, was now joining with a handful of others to actually create a different kind of congregation. As Naomi envisioned it, Nashuva would be an outreach congregation, bringing Judaism to those who had otherwise been turned off to it or uninspired by it.
People like me.
Nashuva would hold Shabbat evening services on the first Friday of every month and do a social service project in the L.A. area on the third Sunday of the month. It was service that led to service; outreach that led to reaching out.
There would be no membership, no dues, and everyone -- everyone -- would be welcome.
The service itself would be traditional and in Hebrew, but with accessible translations written by Naomi and set to great, engaging music.
Naomi put together a band, and I watched with the screwed up face of a stodgy sitcom dad as several strikingly handsome, talented musicians appeared in our living room for rehearsals. Naomi and the band fashioned new arrangements, adapting ancient Hebrew prayers to melodies as diverse as music from "Godspell" and the Jewish Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda.
She cold-called a church she had driven by countless times, the Westwood Hills Congregational Church on Westwood Boulevard. A young woman answered the phone. Naomi asked to speak to the reverend.
"You're speaking with her," said the Rev. Kirsten Linford.
When the two met, they fell into each other's arms like long-lost friends.
On Nashuva's debut night, we hung Wanda Peretz's beautiful handmade tapestry depicting a dove returning to a Tree of Life. It hid the church's giant cross. I set out food for after the service (some roles never change), and we filled the pews with the prayer books Naomi had created.
"Just put out 50," she said.
People began to arrive. The congregation swelled. I stood in the balcony and watched the hundreds of church seats fill up.
Eventually, Nashuva outgrew its first home and moved to its current location, the Brentwood Hills Presbyterian Church. It has succeeded beyond our imaginations without falling back on traditional models of organization, like dues and membership and tickets. Nashuva now even has an alternative to Hebrew school -- Camp Nashuva -- that engages young children in the joy of Jewish learning. What it lacks in the hallmarks of mainstream synagogues -- well-developed lay leadership, regular cash flow, a home of its own -- it has made up for with committed volunteers, some generous donors and grants.
As the nontraditional rebbetzin at a nontraditional shul, I happily set out defining my own role: doing whatever I could to sustain what I truly believe is something magical and exceptional in Jewish life -- and actually looking forward to going to services. I have, at last, returned.
This past June, Nashuva celebrated its fourth anniversary. Somehow, Nashuva has survived as an un-synagogue.
At the High Holy Days, Nashuva is standing room only. But even more remarkable, on the first Friday of each month, I sit in the balcony and watch, not quite believing, as each time it fills up on just an average Shabbat -- with many new faces and many familiar ones. People who had never found a spiritual home. People whose own synagogue services leave them cold. People who never felt welcome in Jewish life. Kids dance in the aisles, the congregation leaps to its feet, Naomi sings and leads prayer and speaks -- her ideal rabbinate.
And the most surprising face in the crowd? Mine -- the guy who never liked services, wouldn't join a synagogue and never got involved. I have finally found my spiritual home -- soulful and musical, original and inspiring -- a true reflection of the woman I fell in love with.