For 46 years our family belonged to a synagogue aligned with the Reconstructionist movement, the only indigenously American branch of Judaism, and decidedly liberal in its tenets. The attraction for me was its combination of intellectual dynamism, gender egalitarianism and a do-it-yourself vibe that felt fresh and adventurous.
Instead of sermons on Shabbat mornings, we had discussions. Many of the members back in the 1970s were intellectuals: dissatisfied with Orthodoxy and generally agnostic about God, they were nevertheless passionately engaged with existential Jewish issues, and deeply steeped in Jewish history. So participation in these conversations was a privilege, and often a heady experience for my youthful self. Although debate could be fierce, no well-considered opinions were off-limits.
Over the years, as in all of Judaism’s liberal branches, progressive politics — including a strong flirtation (and worse) with anti-Zionism — crept into the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I became uncomfortable with a creeping aura of political correctness that manifested in usually tacit, but occasionally overt hostility to anyone expressing conservative views.
Inertia and long-term synagogue friendships kept us affiliated. Then, last winter, a combination of circumstances, including a new rabbi’s expressed intolerance for non-progressive opinions, made it clear that in spite of our advanced age for such a life-altering decision, we were in need of Jewish institutional renewal.
After a few months of deliberation, we ended up pivoting in a 180-degree turn to a modern Orthodox synagogue — old, beautiful, rich in learning opportunities and traditional in its practices. One of them is separate seating for men and women. I wondered if this would be a problem for me after so many years of family seating and participation in the Torah service (in Orthodox Judaism, women do not read from the Torah).
It was no problem at all. In fact, I liked it. It took me back to the High Holidays of my childhood, in my “zayde’s” strictly Orthodox downtown Toronto shul where, from the balcony women’s section, I would gaze down at the men, many of them bearded and ancient-seeming, wrapped in their “taleissim” (prayer shawls), swaying, praying, just as their fathers and forefathers had for centuries.
And here I was again looking down at Jewish men — not many bearded, and no longer (now that I am becoming ancient) so very ancient-looking — bonded by the very same prayers. Time stood aside; the mystery and beauty of Jewish continuity overtook me. Everything old was new again.