Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Visit to B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue in Manhattan

I got up out of my seat, joined hands with strangers, and was dancing in the aisles.

Back up.

As Class 18 of the Humanist Institute prepared to make their fourth and last field trip of the weekend to a religious institution to learn more about Humanist Trends in world religions, we were told that the service at the Jewish Synagogue B'nai Jeshurun would be unlike any Jewish service we had ever seen. We were told that there would be singing and dancing and joy and deep meaning.

My last two visits to synagogues here in Rhode island could not have been more different. Last year, two days after my family celebrated our secular version of Christmas, I attended the funeral of a young man I had known since he was 13. Josh Rubin was one of the nicest, funniest, warmest individuals I had ever known. I met him through my comic book store and asked him to babysit my children on those rare evenings when my wife and I could get away for dinner and a movie.

Josh grew up and moved to Brooklyn, New York where he started Whisk Cafe. Then, on Halloween of 2011, he disappeared. Nearly three months passed before Josh's body was identified. He had been shot and killed, and his body burned beyond recognition in Pennsylvania. The authorities are still investigating, and his murder remains unsolved.

The funeral was the saddest I have ever attended. It took place on December 27th at Temple Emanu-El here in Providence, overseen by Rabbi Wayne M. Franklin. Rabbi Franklin attended the Rhode Island Interfaith response to the rape and death threats against my niece in the wake of the Cranston school banner case, and I remember we talked briefly about Josh. Neither of us, I think, could really parse our emotional reaction to Josh's death, we could only share our sadness with each other.

My next trip to a synagogue was happier. I was at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Touro is America's oldest synagogue. My friend Chuck Flippo is site manager at Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site, so he had arranged a tour of of the site for the Humanists of Rhode Island. Touro is historically important not only for it's age and longevity, but because of the letter Washington sent there guaranteeing Jewish Americans full religious freedom in this new country.

My third trip to a synagogue was to B'nai Jeshurun in New York as part of my class with the Humanist Institute. Here we were greeted outside by a smiling happy woman who wanted to introduce us to what she experienced in her faith and her interactions with her house of worship. We were lead inside, and for the first time in our field trips we were allowed to keep our shoes on. The men donned kippahs (at the Islamic Center the women wore headscarves, now it was the men's turn to cover their heads) and we were escorted to our seats by our lovely host.
The interior of the temple was beautiful, with ornate stained glass and a beautifully designed altar. Our host was very enthusiastic about the community she had found at B'nai Jeshurun. She was enchanted with the history of the temple, which she described as a failing community until they convinced a charismatic Rabbi from Argentina, Marshall T. Meyer, to lead them in 1985.

Rabbi Meyer focused the community on social justice and music, inspiring and building a vibrant congregation that serves thousands of believers. It is a testament to Meyer's genius and charisma that B'nai Jeshurun thrived even after the roof collapsed during a service (injuring no one, which our host saw as "miraculous") and even Rabbi Meyer's death. Instead, the community thrived after his passing, finding other charismatic rabbis to lead the services and the community.
B'nai Jeshurun is gay friendly, with the only restriction on marriage being that both parties must be Jewish. Their social justice revolves in part around helping the homeless.

It was when my friend James Croft asked our host what B'nai Jeshurun had meant to her in her own life that I saw the real power of such a community. She was literally staggered by the question. Tears came to her eyes. "I've never been asked that," she said, searching for words, "I'll have to email you." She was overwhelmed with emotion, unable to articulate the depth of her relationship to this community and this religion. As a child she had been raised in the Jewish faith, but it had all seemed so distant sterile. As a woman, she had been kept away from vital parts of her faith, and was not allowed to fully participate. But here at B'nai Jeshurun she found a real connection.

That faith, however, is not an absolute dictation of truth from on high. I was only a little surprised to hear that atheists are welcomed at B'nai Jeshurun. In fact many of those who are active members are atheists or agnostics, freethinkers and naturalists. The rabbi leading the service in song and speech at one point mentioned calling on "angels or agents" or whatever metaphor makes you comfortable. Judaism in this context becomes a set of symbols useful for explaining and explicating a moral view of the world centered on autonomy, spiritual fulfillment and social justice, not a set of statements about the actual nature of the universe.

The music was provided by violin, guitar, and cello. It was upbeat and nicely paced, but it also reminded me of an Enrico Morricone score for a spaghetti western: hopeful, fun and ironic but also maybe a little sad and existential. The voices of the two rabbis leading the service were cool and melodious, and the lyrics were delivered with the easy confidence of accomplished performers.

The congregation sang along when appropriate, and clapped their hands and stomped their feet to keep the beat. And then, at a cue that I completely missed, we were encouraged to get up and dance.

I got up out of my seat, joined hands with strangers, and was dancing in the aisles.

The dance came about two thirds of the way through the service, and if you were tired and your spirit was flagging then the rush of blood and adrenalin gained through dancing made sure that you were going to make it to the end of the service in high spirits. During the announcements our class was acknowledged and greeted. Also acknowledge was a group of teenage Girl Guides from Queensland Australia, who were spending some of their time in New York learning about world religions unknown to them in their part of their country. One of the girls told me, after the surface, that they have many refugees in their area, and that they know Christians, Hindus. Muslims and Sikhs, but no Jews. This service was their first experience of Judaism.

My overall impression of B'nai Jeshurun is that is was similar to Unitarian Universalism in some respects, but the B'nai Jeshurun community was infused with more energy, and instead of being informed by many faith traditions as UUs claim to be, it is informed by Judaism. The strong values of social justice and egalitarianism are great features, as is their commitment to dialogue with those of different faiths.

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