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Jewish Journal

Embracing the Awkward

by Susan Esther Barnes

September 19, 2012 | 7:00 am

In my blog post on Wednesday last week I proclaimed that I was ready for the High Holy Days. “Been there, done that,” I thought, “I have done my usual activities, I know what to expect, and I am prepared.” Then God laughed.

Late Wednesday afternoon, I received an email from a friend who works at the JCC next to the synagogue. There was a local retirement community looking for someone to come lead High Holy Day services. Would I be able to help?

So, okay. I have led weekday morning services at the synagogue, and I have led shiva (mourning) services. Why not High Holy Day services? How different could it be? I was sure I could borrow prayer books and kippot from the synagogue. I figured I could get by without a shofar. Suddenly, though, I felt anything but prepared.

A friend emailed me a copy of the machzor (holiday prayer book) developed by synagogue members. It turned out the retirement home only wanted a 30 minute service, so I got to work on paring it down to a bare minimum. Would I be able to make it short but still meaningful, without missing any of the parts the participants would be expecting?

Then I showed up to services on Friday night, where I was reminded it was the first night of “Base Camp,” an experiment in trying, twice a month, to make Shabbat services more like summer camp. We had our usual pre-oneg before services, but we tried to keep everyone out of the sanctuary.

When it was almost time to go in, the entire congregation jammed into the foyer, where each family lit a Shabbat candle. It was crowded. It was noisy. It was awkward. Then everyone sang together as the synagogue doors were opened, and everyone streamed inside. It was lovely.

After services, we gathered outside for Israeli dancing, taught by a trio of enthusiastic teens. They tried to teach us too much in too short a time. The music was too fast for people who were just learning the steps. It, too, was awkward. Still, a surprisingly large number of people participated, and had a lot of fun.

The awkwardness continued on Saturday night, at the Civic Center where we hold High Holiday services, since the synagogue isn’t large enough to hold everyone. We had been informed the major construction project that was supposed to be finished by then was still in full swing, so we arrived to find the building’s main entrance blocked, and the parking lot festooned with temporary lights, pylons, and barriers.

We stationed various Board members along the routes people would have to navigate to travel from the parking lot to the side entrance. We also had Board members near the drop-off point for people who need to travel the shortest distance possible from car to door.

The route was a bit awkward, but our congregation took it all in good humor, and once inside, the services proceeded without a hitch.

When Monday morning services rolled around, I was feeling off my game. I didn’t know what to expect at the retirement home that afternoon, and I had a hard time connecting with God and the prayers.

Then, after lunch, I drove to the retirement home. I had been told there might be only two or three people interested in the service, but I brought 10 copies of the prayer book, just to be safe. It turned out I was several prayer books short.

I felt a bit awkward having to ask people to share. The room was too hot. A couple of the people routinely had trouble finding the right page. Some of them mentioned the tunes I was singing weren’t the tunes with which they grew up. Most of them didn’t know the Hebrew, so I had to improvise in places, in order not to subject them to me soloing the whole time. I felt pressured to stay on time, especially since it turned out there was a lecture scheduled for afterward.

Somehow, I got through it, and afterward the participants and the program director thanked me heartily. Apparently, last year some men from an Orthodox outreach group had come, and the result had been a disaster. I think, in the end, it was my effort to pay attention to, and to accommodate, the needs of the group that saved the day.

Still, I have to say, it was a relief on Tuesday morning when I was able to attend second day services in our usual synagogue, with no last-minute preparations, and no construction. Experimentation and improvisation are healthy and good, and I hope we continue to do them. But sometimes, what you want it is the people you know, in the place you know, without any awkwardness.

Now, am I ready for Yom Kippur? God only knows.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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