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FIRST PERSON

Back to the shul

An exploration of returning to the in-person community

After months of being shut out of shul, due to covid restrictions, this past Shabbat I returned. The last time I was in shul was Purim, and people were wearing festive masks and costumes.

Then we slid from festivity to fear in a dizzying few days.

Perhaps because I am a born and bred rabbi’s daughter, being unable to attend shul has felt deeply antithetical to the fabric of my life. It felt so wrong.

Shul participation and all related matters permeated our home from the time I was a child. Regularly, I watched my father, a pulpit rabbi, prepare his d’vrei Torah for Shabbat. Over the one phone we had, I overheard discussions with congregants and was at times privy to some juicy shul politics that leaked out within the confines of our home. Shul “machers,” the big shots, were known to me by name, as was congregants’ complaints at the lack of the proper amount of schnapps and kichel at the kiddush.

Over the last several months, I’ve wondered how my father would have handled the closure of his beloved shul. He spent so much time within those walls. During the week he would preside over meetings, counsel congregants, and be involved in community and other pastoral projects. Then on Shabbat, sitting proudly on a tall chair on the bima, he would look out and observe his congregation.

My father would tap on his watch to express his displeasure at the late hour when I slowly ambled down the aisle to my makom kavua (regular seat) at the front of the shul. It’s certainly not easy being a rabbi’s child. Adolescence is challenging in most circumstances, but when you are swimming along in a community fishbowl, it can be daunting. Often there is a need to assert individuality by pushing parameters, sometimes subtly, and sometimes a whole lot.

An old school rabbi, my dad didn’t always take his vacation. He began his rabbinical career during the dark days of World War ll, enduring so many other personal and world crises over the years. I can still remember his tense expression and dismay during the Yom Kippur services of 1973, when Israel was suddenly attacked.

My father never experienced the closure of shul. Not ever.

Recently, when some friends said they had returned to shul, it was high time for me as well. We signed up for the outdoor 8:30 minyan at my shul, Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Teaneck. I woke up early for this minyan, an hour earlier than my usual shul-going time. It’s hard to break old habits.

Dressing for the outdoor minyan was easy. Simplicity was the key here, as I envisioned dressing for a Shabbat in Israel. Skirt, blouse, and open toed “sandalim,” with my mask and siddur as my main accessories.

Within minutes, I was enveloped and deeply comforted by the familiar Shabbat liturgy and niggunim (songs). It felt like coming back home, although I was in an unfamiliar tent, fans whirling, and away from my regular shul makom kavua. The actual davening was pared down to the essentials to accommodate the restrictions, but there also was an unmistakable warm sense of connection within the small group.

My friend Florence was sitting to my six-feet-socially distant right. Later, we shared our strong reactions to this return-to-shul experience.

“It felt great being back at shul,” Florence began. “Shul provides positive structure. I didn’t grow up religious, and my family attended shul mostly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I became religious, shul became an integral part in my life. For me, shul is about connection to the community, and it provides a sense of spirituality.”

“As a single mother, I would bring my children to shul regularly, and it became important to them as well,” Florence continued. “Even though we didn’t attend every week, my children were imbued with the importance and value of shul in our lives.”

Florence and I then shared how Shabbat felt so different without having the shul experience, and how it is such an integral part of the day. “I enjoy being a part of a kehillah” — a congregation — “listening to the Torah reading, watching people getting their aliyot, and then there’s the singing, which connects on a totally different level,” she said.

Shul is a home base where so many people come together from all backgrounds and connect.

I am glad to be back home.

Esther Kook lives in Teaneck. She’s a reading specialist, language arts teacher, and a freelance writer.

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