Jewish · OBSERVATIONS · slice of life

A Vibrant Jewish Life in Manhattan (that I wish I still had).

The Manhattan skyline was in front of us as our car crossed the Hudson River.  We were bound for the children’s Shabbat morning service at our former synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (aka: BJ).  I spent countless Shabbats at BJ when I lived in Manhtattan. Our Aliyat Hatan v’Kallah (pre-weddding blessing in front of family, friends, and the congregation) took place in the same building — in 2007 — where we would be taking our daughter to services today.

Once we walked into the building I could hear the sounds from the main Shabbat morning service.  A familiar melody was being chanted.  Though I couldn’t see it, I knew the Torah was being carried around the sanctuary.  I felt compelled to go in, just for a minute, but my hands were on Isabelle’s stroller.  That helped me remember why we were back at BJ. My husband, father-in-law, & I were there for her… for the kids’ service.

I parked the stroller along the wall, gave Isabelle a short lecture about staying with mommy, daddy and/or papa during services, and then unstrapped her, removing her coat and throwing it into the seat where she had been sitting.

I led her by hand to the chapel where a few families were already sitting. Over the next few minutes more people poured in.  Marc and I sat on the floor with Isabelle; my father-in-law on a chair.  A few minutes later the assistant director of education welcomed everyone and started service.

And then I sat back and was amazed.  Amazed at the way she explained concepts and prayers.  Amazed at the way she prepared the children for Pesach (which starts next week) while keeping Shabbat the focus.  Amazed at the way the children were engaged with hand motions in prayers and with their bodies standing under a “tent” as we sang Ma
Tovu.  Amazed at central role music (which is one of the main things BJ is known for) played in this service.  Amazed at how many people kept coming into the chapel.  By the time we stood for Mi Chamocha, I think there were 50-60 kids + their family members in the room.  As we danced with Isabelle I looked around the room and noticed everyone
dancing and rejoicing with their kids.  This doesn’t happen anywhere else, does it? How wonderful it is to end a hectic week worshiping in such a spiritual place.

Right before the service ended the rabbis came into the back of the chapel.  I tapped one of them on the shoulder.  It was Felicia, one of the rabbis who co-officiated our wedding.  We caught up quickly and then I brought her over to see Marc and to meet Isabelle.

As the service came to a close with everyone singing the Ma Nishtana, in preparation for Pesach,  I felt a twinge of sadness. We live three hours away.  Shabbat mornings at BJ are a delight, but regularly spending Shabbat there is not possible because of the distance.  We can come back with Izzy a few times a year so she can be part of this vibrant service, but what about the rest of the Saturday mornings in the year?

When I left New York in 2007, I knew I probably would never be a member of a synagogue like BJ again.  Shabbat services like this are a joy to attend, but they make me realize that the Jewish life I lead now isn’t the one I anticipated having when I was a twenty-something living in New York.  I like the congregation we are members of now.  The people welcomed us from the day we stepped through the door.  BUT, it’ll never have the same ruach, or spirit, as BJ.  I thought I had accepted that. After going back to BJ this morning, even if it was just for the children’s service, I realize I haven’t truly accepted my reality.  True acceptance may take a few more years.

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17 thoughts on “A Vibrant Jewish Life in Manhattan (that I wish I still had).

  1. I am glad that you had a chance to go back, even though as you said, it can’t be a regular part of your weekly life as you would like. It sounds like it is indeed quite unique. I wonder what it would take to get what you love so much about it into other congregations. Do you think it is possible at all or do you think that acceptance over time seems to be the only feasible option? It is always so hard to miss a community!

    1. Honestly, Amanda, I think it’s about acceptance. (I’d like to be wrong about that.) We live in a small city, which has a small Jewish population (maybe 8,000 in the whole area). On an average Saturday morning at our synagogue, there are only 2 – 5 kids there for Tot Shabbat. Because of the sheer numbers (and that most people haven’t belonged to a place like BJ), I don’t think a religious community like BJ will ever form where I live. That being said, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to make it happen on a smaller scale.

      1. That makes sense that they are so completely different in many ways that it would be hard to re-create in your community. It sounds like you will always hold special memories of it though, and I bet Isabelle will remember it too. Even if it is fairly rare that she gets to experience it, it sounds like it is something that will stick with her.

  2. What a vibrant worship community. I love “seeing” parents and children dance and take their fill of joy during service.

  3. I can understand why you would want to return to BJ often. It sounds like the energy and love and with so many participating…it makes it a wonderful experience. Yes, you can make it happen for Isabelle on a smaller scale and then return to BJ as often as is possible so she can have the same experience as you have had. Thanks for this post. Jackie http://familytrove.blogspot.com/

  4. There is also the connection you feel to the synagogue and the rabbis and perhaps the hope of someday returning that also gets in the way of feeling completely at home at your new temple. I’m sure you will make it feel like home for Isabelle.

    1. You have a good point, Rissa. However, I think we’re going to be in PA for a long time. (Though I’m hoping to retire to Manhattan, but that’ll be long after Isabelle is grown-up.)

  5. I am not a religious person, but my husband is. He grew up in a church in upstate New York that sounds very much like BJ – a vibrant house of worship, with many children for companionship and a welcoming community. We moved many times, and each time Scott would go church shopping, only to return home disappointed. When we finally wound up in Ridgewood, NJ., it was the same thing. This time, though, our kids were old enough to be in Sunday school, and so we joined a church that didn’t measure up to his beloved home church, but “will do.” Our kids and their experience there, and the necessity for him to make sure that this would be a good experience for them there, slowly changed his point of view. No church will ever replace his hometown church, but THIS church was his children’s church – and he has worked hard to make sure they vale their time there….teaching Sunday school, the children’s choir, the confirmation classes. I read your post, Stacey, and thought of Scott, our kids and Isabelle – wherever you take Isabelle to worship will be HER place, and there will be much that you can do to help make it memorable for her, too, right?

  6. It is so sad that there aren’t more children in your synagogue which would make it easier to create something like the children’s service at BJ.

  7. What can I say? I understand. Many years ago, I spent a summer in Israel and we had the same sort of energy as at BJ, though we were 20 somethings without children. When I returned to my Hillel, it felt like such a let down. That being said, I think our congregation is special and we’re the ones who make it so. If I don’t comment again before Monday, chag sameach!

  8. I love my place of worship! Every time I have thought of moving, one of my first thoughts has always been; do I have to change my place of worship.I think what also makes a place of worship special is to be an active participant, not just a passive observer.

  9. BJ sounds like a beautiful, vibrant worship experience. I can see why you want to share it with Isabelle. Sometimes I let my missing of past worship experiences (usually from church camp or mission trips) get in the way of worshipping with my whole heart where I am. THen I try to remember a quote from THE COLOR PURPLE. I can’t remember it exactly, but the gist is that people get out of worship what they bring to worship. I bet you bring much to worship with your family no matter where you are.

  10. This sounds like a wonderful experience, something for which most of our spirits yearn. At least you make it to this special place a few times each year. Your joy and love will remain with your child; this will still give her a solid foundation for how she feels about your religion. This will have a resting place deep within her for life.

  11. Leaving is hard, no matter what. It takes a while before you find that your new place becomes your “home.” Hang in there, and in the meantime, visit BJ as often as you can. It sounds like a truly wonderful place.

  12. I’ve been to many Bar & Bat Mitzvah’s through my time as a teacher, Stacey & each of the different congregations acted uniquely. I’ve always thought it was the combination of the rabbi & the people too. I don’t know if it’s appropriate, but perhaps you could invite a few families with children & show them how fun this could be in the teaching of the younger ones. BJ sounds wonderful. I’ve only experienced the joy of the coming of age ceremonies, but each approached them in different ways.

  13. I read your post last night – and wasn’t going to respond because there were so many other responses….but then…even this morning I was thinking of it….and connecting. My husband and I have changed parishes and churches MANY times in the past and not becuase we have moved! We are lucky that there are many Catholic churches within 30 minutes of our homes and we have changed as leadership and worship practices have morphed over the years. It’s one thing to just “go worship” and another to want to “worship” in a way that makes you feel vibrant and excited. I write all this because the one regret I have is that we have not gotten into positions to change practices in churches that we don’t like. It’s always been a factor of time and energy – there is only so much – and the fact that there are many options for us!

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