In 2004 I found myself going through a personal crisis and of all places I found solace in religion. I grew up in a Jewish exceedingly anti-religious family with very strong Jewish traditional values. I know, it sounds controversial, however, we celebrated every holiday with no exception, but hardly observed the laws and we never went to temple. No way, my grandparents, my father, my uncles, would not be caught dead at the synagogue but we owned – along with other families – a Jewish school where Yiddish, Hebrew, Jewish law, Jewish history, literature, etc. was taught. Go figure.
In 2004 I found myself re-evaluating many aspects of my personal history and behaviors and as the crisis developed I found myself observing many of the elements I was instructed to loath by my upbringing. Harsh huh?
Here I was in the Chabbad of the South Bay mingling with religious folks, studying the Torah, having fantastic discussions, enjoying myself and finding a new sense of community that I had not had since I had left Argentina 20 years back. It felt good. Very quickly my crisis was under control and life continued on. New friends, new challenges, my kids going to Sunday school and beginning to understand more about their heritage, who they were as part of a people and the challenges that Jews continue to face every day.
The High Holidays came around and I spent them for the first time at temple. I had contributed a little money to the community through the Rabbi. I think that as a whole it was $1000k or less. It was not that I was at the top of any list. However, during the Yom Kippur services I was called to hold the Torah. I did not want to go but it is such an honor. I was there to meditate, to be with the community, to be with myself on such a holy day. I went up to the Torah and held it. During Iskor I cried. I felt such a connection to my father that it overwhelmed me.
It is important to note that I am opposed to religion, but just as my father, grandfather and uncles, I feel a bond to Judaism that is unbreakable.
High holiday after high holiday, Shabbat after Shabbat, Purim after Purim we went to temple and celebrated. I even wore a Iarmikle for a while.
A couple of years later I moved about an hour north for a job. I was introduced to the local Chabbad Rabbi and enrolled my kids in their Hebrew School. All was good. My kids and wife felt their approach was too militant and pushy but they were committed to the “cause” so they dealt with it but for example, we never went to Shabbat services. One Sunday I get a call from the director of the Hebrew School regarding an auction they were having to raise money for the school and with an accusatory tone of “why aren’t you here” I was “invited”. I asked the Rabbi if I sent a donation would that please him and excuse me as I was in the middle of dinner at a friend’s. With scorn the Rabbi answered: It depends how much. The conversation continued for a while longer in a similar tone.
Now … While I do come from a very well to do family I am not well to do myself. As a matter of fact I struggle financially every day and have a hard time meeting some of my financial obligations – still, I am very fortunate in other areas – so whatever money I donate comes with some hardship for me. And to be honest, I’d rather pay for private lessons for my kids than to donate, still, when I can I do. I sent the Hebrew School director $250. It did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, especially when in comparison to the South Bay Rabbi, he would make it easy and not “incriminatory” if you could not donate. That year I also donated $2000 to the community center as well.
The year went on and the High Holidays approached. I was warned that the ascensions to the Torah were auctioned off in the middle of the service and that it is a common practice. I did not fully appreciate the warning, in particular because:
A – I did not grow up in a religious context where that happened so I was ignorant of the practice.
B – because that was not the practice in the South Bay Chabbad and that was my only frame of reference.
I went to Rosh A’Shana services at the Hyatt Hotel. In one of the Ball Rooms. HUH??? Whatever happened to the synagogue? Apparently it is not big enough to host everybody that shows up. So? Neither is the one in the South Bay and they figure out ways to make it happen. And I promise you, the community in the north is way more affluent than the one in the South Bay.
So be it. Services at the Hyatt. I went. Not exactly a holy place, but the community was there so some of the energy was there as well. I fed from it. I started to “meditate” and quickly was transported to times of old. The mojo was strong with this community. You might think of me schizophrenic, but I saw myself at a court yard outside of The Temple a thousand years ago. I saw myself walking around and discussing Torah with others. I had been transported to the past. I was looking at the Temple as it was with my own eyes; I could not believe it. I was touching “God’s face with my hands”. And then somebody stood up and said: “Now we are going to auction off the ascensions”. I felt sick to my stomach. It took me three minutes to realize what was going on and when I did, I packed my Talit and left. The moment I was outside I vomited.
It was as though somebody had kicked me in the testicles really hard. I did not go back. And next year I spent Rosh A’Shana in the South Bay, where I was not interrupted. I have not gone back to temple really. In general the experience has jaded me somewhat. I am not opposed to collecting moneys. I am not even opposed to selling off the ascensions, but do not do it in the middle of a service. Do it in private so people like me that can not afford to play do not feel bad and can participate in the service anyway. Do not be exclusive and shame people. It is a community after all.
Beyond the emotional aspect of the experience and after a few years I have processed the events from a philosophical point of view and after everything is said and done, I think that what bothered me the most is the fact that it feels like the time of the second Temple. If you did not have money and were well to do you had no access to the Torah, in particular, to study the Torah. Really, we have not learned anything from our past?
I guess not.