A Tale of Two Synagogues

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. So starts A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. And so starts this tale of two synagogues.

Dickens depicts the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy leading up to the revolution, and the corresponding brutality of those same revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats.

My tale isn’t as dramatic, but it reminded me of A Tale of Two Cities just the same.

One Friday night in February, a woman went to a Reform synagogue in a large US metropolitan suburb; she took her biracial child with her to check out the local scene. Everyone was so nice! The membership director introduced herself right away and invited her back the next week. The rabbi was warm and welcoming, and the woman and her daughter really felt embraced. They were invited back for family Shabbat the following week.

This time, the woman brought a family friend. When they arrived, they were again welcomed by the membership director and the rabbi. They were asked to chip in for pizza, which they did willingly. A local bagel company had donated bagels and accoutrement, and when the woman went to get one for her friend (who didn’t want pizza), the membership director said, “You are welcome to take a bagel if you put some money in” (pointing to a basket next to the cream cheese). The woman said, “But we just put in $20 toward the pizza,” to which the membership director responded, “That was for the pizza, not the bagels.” (I feel the peasants beginning to stir.)

The woman and her friend then went inside the sanctuary for the Shabbat service and, sitting a few rows behind them, was a male couple with their two young children - a sweet boy and girl. The service started and everything was going along fine; the rabbi welcomed everyone and led the service. Then, when he began his sermon, he started by saying, “Who has a little girl?” A number of hands went up. The rabbi went on to say, “Well, you know when your little girl grows up, she will find a husband and get married, as all little girls do.” (And the peasants are no longer interested in eating the cake.)

The woman couldn’t bring herself to turn around right then, but a few minutes later, when she did, as she suspected, the family of four had left. And she was close on their heels. Remember, this was the same synagogue that had welcomed her so warmly the week before, and at which she had had such a positive experience… (And the barricades are erected.)

The third Friday night in February, the woman went to another nearby synagogue. This one was Conservative, so she made sure to “cover up” because she didn’t want to appear out of place. Again, she was welcomed warmly, this time by the rabbi first - there were only a handful of congregants in attendance. After the service, she went up to the rabbi to speak to him, specifically about an LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle program on whose Advisory Council she sat. She wasn’t sure he would be receptive – it is Conservative after all – but was pleasantly surprised by his enthusiastic response wanting to know more and asking how he could get involved. He didn’t balk at either the interfaith or the LGBT components, which often (89% of the time) go hand in hand. (There is a reprieve in the uprising.)

So just as Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities is victimized by the revolutionaries even though he was basically a nice guy, so too, will the institutions that are unwilling to deeply examine their prejudices, be replaced (okay, not violently, but still…) by institutions that are finding their way beyond tolerance to acceptance. (A truce. Of sorts.)

This is what we at JOI call “institutional Darwinism,” a term coined by Executive Director Kerry Olitzky to describe what has happened – and will continue to happen in this period of great transition for the Jewish community – to institutions and organizations not willing to turn themselves inside out and find new ways of building a community of relevance and meaning.

While Dickens’ work was published 1859, the parts of the Jewish community still living in a paradigm from 1959 won’t survive the new revolution to be around in 2059.

The End.

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