Sunday, October 30, 2005

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt

I just sent the following email to a local synagogue:

To whom it may concern:

I have lived [in name of neighborhood] for three years, where I am involved in a number of independent Jewish communities. I observe one day of yom tov, in accordance with the Reform minhag, but most of last week's Simchat Torah celebrations in the neighborhood were happening on Tuesday night and Wednesday, when I was not observing the holiday. I saw on [name of congregation]'s website that you were having Simchat Torah services at 6 PM on Monday night, so I decided to go there so that I could celebrate Simchat Torah with a community on the day that I considered to be yom tov. This was all the information I had about the service, and I'm not very familiar with the congregation, but I figured I could just show up.

When I got there on Monday night, the guard at the door asked what I was there for. At first I was taken aback by the question -- I was showing up at a synagogue on a Jewish holiday, so it seemed self-evident that I was there for the holiday. I said that I was there for the service. He asked me which service. I wasn't aware of multiple services, so I said that I didn't know. Apparently the fact that I didn't know where I was going marked me as a suspicious character, so three other security personnel surrounded me and started asking me questions. They searched my bag (which I expected), asked me several times whether I was a member of the congregation (I said no), asked for ID, and had me sign a visitors' log (which presumably I wouldn't have had to do if I were a member). They asked me again which service I was going to, and I asked what the options were. They said that the consecration service was in the sanctuary, and there was a "private event" for members downstairs. (It wasn't clear to me that these were sequential, not simultaneous.) They asked again if I was a member, and I said no, so I went into the sanctuary and joined the service there. Once I was inside, I ran into someone I knew, who invited me to stay after the service for dancing downstairs. I went downstairs afterwards, but I already felt so unwelcome there that I found myself unable to stay for more than a few minutes, so I went home.

No lasting damage was done. I have been to enough other synagogues recently that I understand that this unwelcoming attitude toward outsiders is not typical of the Jewish community in general, or the Reform Jewish community in particular. I plan to remain involved with my Jewish communities (though I am unlikely to return to [name of congregation]). However, if I had been someone new to the city, or someone who hadn't been actively involved with Jewish life recently but who decided that this joyous holiday might be a good time to give a synagogue a try, it is likely that this experience would have been sufficiently alienating that I would have concluded that the Jewish community didn't want me.

I am bringing this to your attention because you claim on your website to be "a welcoming spiritual community", so I wanted to let you know about the public image that you present to visitors, in contrast to this ideal. The security guards treated me with suspicion because they thought I had just wandered in off the street. And I essentially had. But your service times are posted on the outside of the building, creating the (possibly inaccurate) impression that anyone is welcome to come to services, regardless of whether they are members. I understand the need in today's world for security at Jewish institutions. But surely there are ways to protect our communities from harm while still welcoming newcomers.

So then I danced on Tuesday night with the cool kidz (even though it wasn't yom tov for me) and had a much better experience.

I considered the possibility that this sort of interrogation was SOP for urban Reform megashuls (a species with which I lack experience, having grown up in a suburban Reform microshul). But then I found myself in another urban Reform megashul on Friday night, and they just looked through my bag and let me through, without asking any questions. So I'm happy to know that this practice wasn't standard. It will be interesting to see what reply I receive, if any.

The thing that's so bitterly ironic about this is that I sometimes hear the following critique of independent minyanim:

The difference between a synagogue and a minyan is that a synagogue is really open to all kinds of people and tries to stretch wide to make that accommodation. A minyan is most like a club only for its members and like-minded people. The truth is a synagogue is not just a broader version of a minyan. The synagogue cares about the whole Jewish people.
I have attended many independent minyanim, and have never once been asked whether I was a member, or had anyone suggest that I didn't belong there. In fact, most of the new wave of independent minyanim don't even have membership; their doors are always open to everyone. Certainly there are some minyanim that drive me away in other ways; specifically, the style of the service isn't what I'm looking for. But that's my problem, not theirs. No style will be perfect for everyone. But our doors are open to anyone who is seeking what we're offering. The same cannot be said for these supposedly "welcoming" synagogues.

UPDATE: I got a response from the president of the congregation.

[BZ], I am sorry for your experience at the synagogue on Simchat Torah. While we try to work with our professional security staff so that they understand the special nature of their work within the synagogue, sometimes the security side overpowers the welcoming community that we are trying to foster. I am sorry that there wasn't a member greeting at the door, as there is every Shabbat, who might have mitigated your most unwelcome reception. I will share your experience with our Caring Committee and others here, and hopefully we will be able to prevent other "strangers" from entering and feeling so unwelcome, which you know, would have been our preference.

Again, I apologize for this reception and hope you might try us again sometime, with different results.


  1. Huh. That was an unfortunate experience. I'm sorry.

    For what it's worth, getting into synagogues in Brazil is significantly harder than that, even on a regular Shabbat. You basically need to call ahead of time and let the security guard know that you're coming. (I'm not sure if this is true for native Brazilians or just foreigners like myself.) And mind you, this was Shabbat in a city with no eruv--I was carrying nothing, wearing traditional Shabbat attire, I possibly tried a little Hebrew on them, and my cousin knew the name of the shul rabbi. My cousin, a native-born Brazilian (though not a shul member), and she eventually convinced them to let me in.

    And not exactly related, but your mention of the security guard(s) reminded me--I had some difficulty getting on the plane to leave Israel this week, even though I spoke Hebrew the whole tiime. They asked me a LOT more questions than usual, including which Jewish holidays I observed (it was 3 am, so I said, "All of them," which apparently was insufficient). They also asked me if I belonged to a "kehilla" in New York, to which the answer is, "No, not really." That was clearly the wrong answer, so I quickly amended that to, "I go to Kehillat Orech Eliezer and Darkhei Noam, mostly." THEN she asked for the "name of the rav" at those places, and when I said that there was no rav, she clearly didn't believe me. Someone ought to give Ben Gurion security a primer on the situation at independent UWS minyanim!