I am a Yid. I like to rock. Veitur!

- [ Wednesday, July 07, 2004 ] -
Shul in the Hip Neighborhood
Here's an old Jewish joke:
A Jewish man got stranded on a desert island. He had minimal food and water and only the bare necessities to survive. He immediately felt the need to establish his religion on the island and built two shuls. When he was finally rescued, they asked him, "So nu, with your limited supplies and energy, why did you make TWO shuls?" He said, "I daven at this one. I wouldn't be caught dead in the other shul."
Maybe the joke means that even if you go to an amazing shul, sometimes you just need an alternative. Or maybe it means that Jews just have a basic need to complain about shuls.

My neighborhood, is home to an active Jewish community and has a few shuls. Only one is Orthodox, and it has been around in one form or another since before 1900. When my wife and I got married, we decided to live in this neighborhood, in part, because of the shul. We liked how friendly and easy-going the environment was. The shul is extremely hospitable. In fact, it was due to the extremely active hospitality committee, that my wife and I were able to meet there.

I have issues with the way things operate at my shul, especially regarding Shabbat morning services. I also have issues with the halachic standards of the shul. Let's just say that there are certain halachic leniencies practiced here that I don't agree with. And it's even worse when they are explained to me.

The two big issues are timeliness on Friday night and Shabbat morning, and women's participation in non-traditional ways. Aside from the occasional woman wearing tefillin, the weekday minyanim are okay. Kabbalat Shabbat is usually too slow, but not horrible. Shabbat mincha is usually fine. Shabbat morning services gets to be too much to endure. The women carry the Torah through the women's section during every Torah-reading service. There is no dress code.

The neighborhood in general is not an Orthodox neighborhood. It's not impossible to be Orthodox here, there just aren't as many choices for Jewish things. There is an eiruv, a small day school, and a small kosher section in the supermarket. There is one Orthodox shul with a single daily shacharit, mincha and ma'ariv minyan. The only Mikvah is Lake Michigan. There are about a thousand bars and traife restaurants and a Major League ballpark. In general, the people who live here moved here to party. There are exceptions, such as people who established families here fifty years ago, and those who moved here so they can be closer to their downtown jobs and schools.

Aside from the vast minority of people whose families lived here for 50 years, it's a transient neighborhood. You can meet several new people each Shabbos. Young people move in. Some manage to find their mates (thank you, G-d) and get married. Then as they get older and start thinking about saving money and raising a family, they move to a more appropriate neighborhood.

The Orthodox move out a lot faster, in proportion to their level of observance. In defense of the neighborhood and the shul, it is very welcoming to those lacking in observance wanting more. It is very friendly to those with beginner through moderate levels of observance. I have never met so many converts and people looking to convert in my life (I can name six off the top of my head). I can't even begin to list the number of ba'alei tshuva that I've met here. My wife among them.

Unfortunately, this shul does not welcome or cater to those already observant with the same gusto. Show up in shul with dreadlocks and piercings in your face or carrying a purse, wearing a miniskirt, you will be welcomed with open arms and many lunch invitations. You might not get as many lunch invitations if you show up wearing a black suit and a Borsalino.

There seems to be two organized camps in the shul that would like to operate things differently. One would be happier moving the shul closer to the progressive/liberal/egalitarian side (called "Tehilla"), and one would prefer to slice about an hour-and-a-half off the davening time with a more "standard" Orthodox davening. The way the shul is going now, the Rabbi and enough members of the board seem to have an agenda to lean as far to the halachic left as possible. I'm very curious to know how many members are satisfied with the shul the way it is, currently. The three-and-a-half hour davening time is etched in stone.

Fine. Wouldn't it be nice if we could have a second minyan at the existing shul? The regular minyan would be held in the main sanctuary, as it is now. Then the shul's beit midrash could house a second minyan. Maybe there can be different kinds of secondary minyanim, alternating Shabbatot in the b"m. People could have a choice where to daven, yet still be a part of the main shul.

This kind of compromise just isn't possible at this time. The board/Rabbi feels that this shul is the identity of the community, and that any additional minyan would be breaking it up. The official stance, held by the Rabbi, is that there can only be one minyan on Shabbat morning. Unofficially, the Rabbi is okay with other minyanim as long as they are not on shul property.

There are actually people in the shul that are against any "breakaway" minyan at all, even off shul property.

This past week, we had our first outside minyan on Shabbat morning. We had a sefer torah. We started at 9:15, and had more than ten men there by that time. We finished before 11:15 and had a total of at least 30 people at the end. We had a small kiddush and then some people went to the shul for socializing, kiddush #2 and meeting people for meals. Everyone at our minyan is a dues-paying member of the shul.

At shul they were greeted by people who told them they should be ashamed for showing their faces at shul, and going to kiddush. And that our minyan is breaking up the shul. I should remind you that shul usually fills up around 11 and a lot of people come very close to kiddush time, and many come only for kiddush.

I don't think having a second minyan divides the shul. I think the shul is already divided. The goal now should be to accept and unite the different camps in the same shul. We all like the shul in general and want to be a part of it.

In light of all this shul nonsense, wanting to increase our own levels of observance, and save a little money for making aliyah, my wife and I have decided to move to West Rogers Park (aka West Ridge). WRP is the central Jewish neighborhood--the epicenter of Torah and Kashrut in Chicago. Instead of being forced to attend a shul that disappoints us, we look forward to having our pick of shuls and Rabbis that can disappoint us.

We will continue to support the new Orthodox minyan in the old neighborhood, whether in its current form of an occasional minyan is someone's house, or under the official auspices of the big shul. We love the neighborhood and our friends there. We will be back to visit often--especially to take part in this minyan.