Culture, Identity, Religion

Egal Davening: New Horizons or Slippery (Park) Slope of Treif

This past Shabbat afternoon, I enjoyed a sunny walk to the historic Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. While it may resemble your average Conservative shul in stature and empty seats, I was pleasantly surprised that the services were lay lead in the rabbi’s absence, and halfway through the (full kriyah) Torah reading, it was announced that one could opt to join a niggun circle or Torah reading upstairs.
This recent transplant from the upper west side has found quite an enjoyable shabbat community here in Brooklyn. While Crown Heights, Midwood, Flatbush and other neighborhoods toward the east are still primarily occupied by the Orthodox community, I’m pleased to say that egal minyan hopping in the Carroll Gardens/Park Slope area is quaint but sufficient.
After shul I joined a group of 8 folks, half of whom had made it to davening that morning. Following a delicious pescetarian (though vegan-friendly) meal, I retired to the couch to read up on the latest issue of Time Out New York. The theme, “Get Clean” focuses on New Year’s resolutions where a variety of writers (under pseudonyms) reflect on an area of their life they’d like to clean up. Sugar, antidepressants, and lateness make the list. What else would you imagine on this list? And if you saw the headline “No Religion” could you have anticipated that the “How to detox yourself” would prescribe Kehilat Hadar?

The (anonymous) woman telling about her need to ‘detox’ from religion first shares about her all-encompassing life as an Orthodox Jew on the Upper West Side. She then reflects on being an “Orthodox feminist” who was “struggling with issues of women’s participation” and eventually decides that she “just wanted to do something more egalitarian.” (Question/commnet: is there really such a thing as “more egalitarian?” Personally, I either see egalitarian – men and women can take equal roles in leading services & reading Torah with all congregants equally counting in a minyan, or simply that only men count.)
At first, Kehilat Hadar is her answer. While she mislabels it at “Conservative,” she does say that this is what she was looking for – “Hadar where women were leading the service.” (Note: Men also lead services at Hadar.) Then she “…became really involved” and was “superreligious” and “supercommitted.” At this point as I’m reading I’m thinking to myself – this is great! She was overwhelmed by the Orthodox world in which she was brought up – Hadar is a wonderful community that embraces many members from Orthodox backgrounds who are looking for egalitarian services. So why, I’m thinking, does the graphic that goes with this piece show a woman about to devour a pig head?
The article takes a turn toward treif when our Egal-redeemed-hero moves to Brooklyn.

But then I moved to Brooklyn, and the community was very different. There wasn’t this huge modern community waiting for me. It was much less intense. Most people here don’t keep Shabbat but do Shabbat dinner every so often and aren’t observant—I’d go to Shabbes lunch and realize, Oh, this food was just cooked. I was like, Don’t they know you’re not supposed to cook on Shabbes? I was sheltered.
But I did give in. At one point, there was a dinner like that and it was just me. I said, I’m gonna eat this food. And I ate it. And nothing happened.Doing that for a year wore me down. I had a crisis of faith. I felt like, Do I really believe in all this? Am I doing this because I believe in God, or why? Organized religion is a convention that people use to make life easier, and it works. It’s a lovely thing to be able to follow these very intricate laws, and say, Wow, I’m really good at this. And I was good at it. But if I’m 30 and I’ve never had a piece of shrimp—is that really how I want to live the rest of my life?
So one Saturday morning, I went to the Botanical Gardens with my sister who doesn’t keep Shabbes. It was a beautiful day in May. And I remember thinking, Wow, Saturday is another whole day! You don’t only have to go to shul or sleep late and stay at home—you can do other stuff! And that was a huge epiphany. I went to California that summer. And that summer, I had a nonkosher steak taco on the side of the highway.
That was different—I was very nervous, and I ordered very nervously. And I sat at this picnic table on the side of the highway, and the guy to my right was eating a steak taco, and the guy to my left was eating the same thing, and I thought, I am a person. I am a regular human being. I am no longer a “Jew.” And it was so liberating.

A few quick comments on this –
1. It is too bad that she went from active independent religious egalitarian minyan to Brooklyn “There wasn’t this huge modern community waiting for me.” While I can appreciate her willingness to try new things and I don’t want to judge her decisions of how to observe or now observe shabbat – I have to say, part of what makes Jewish life meaningful for me is building community. In life, can we really expect copies of the Hadar community to be waiting for us every time we move? The funny part really is that in Park Slope, anyway, there is a fantastic minyan called Altshul which is just that – people who were involved with Hadar but then moved to Brooklyn and wanted to build a similar community there.
2. It is amusing to me how quickly she lumps together kashrut, shabbat observance, and established community. If this person was fulfilled by egalitarian activite community, would it really be impossible to keep with that but spend Saturday afternoons at the Botanic Gardens (which, by the way you can definitely get in for free with either a membership card or by simply letting them know you are shabbat observant) and Sunday mornings enjoying bacon at brunch?
3. This story strikes me as compelling because even though the author seemingly goes off the deep end with her treif eating and shabbos breaking, the focus on how to detox is not a list of advice on how to get away from religious completely and be “no longer a ‘Jew.'” Rather, the suggestion outlined by TONY is that of a meaningful middle ground.
In conclusion, big props to TONY for including a unique piece about the independent minyan ‘phenomenon” that will give thousands of people some perspective on what it means to be a religious liberal Jew in the 21st century.

2 thoughts on “Egal Davening: New Horizons or Slippery (Park) Slope of Treif

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