It’s my cousin’s Bar-Mitzvah this week, and so I’ll be davening at his shul – which is Masorati. That’s the British equivalent to Conservative in the US, although it’s generally regarded as rather milder. This particular shul, for example, split a few years ago over whether or not women could wear tallitot. I wouldn’t have thought that would have been controversial in a community where women lead davening and leyning –- after all, I’ve seen women wear tallitot in some Orthodox services -- but there you go. My cousins, incidentally, stayed in the more ‘traditional’ half of the shul, where tallitot for women remained assur.
This will actually be only the second time I have ever davened in a shul that is not Orthodox. The last time was for another cousin’s Bat-Mitzvah, in the same shul, a couple of years ago.
As an Orthodox woman who often felt marginalized and cut-off in the women's gallery, it was a powerful experience. My uncle and aunt had arranged to set aside a few rows which were men-only, or women-only, for the rest of the family, and that’s where I sat, but I remember being incredibly envious of everyone else, who got to sit with their entire families. Although I’d never done it that way, it suddenly seemed extremely natural, and I couldn’t quite remember why we did it differently. The entire atmosphere was incredibly dignified; I don't remember feeling exposed, or alternately, that the men were paying particular attention to the women, at all.
On a similar note, I also remember being incredibly impressed by just how quiet and serious the service was compared to my regular Orthodox synagogue. There seemed to be no talking, just praying.
Mostly, however, I was incredibly jealous of my female cousin, who got up and layned the entire parasha confidently and comfortably, without a single mistake – even as some of my nominally Orthodox (female) cousins, who barely go to shul on regular weeks and probably knew a lot less than the Bat-Mitzvah girl about many aspects of Jewish life and learning, made snide remarks about her ‘ignorance of the way things are really done.’ Watching her, it occurred to me I’d hardly ever even touched a sefer Torah or been near one, let alone leyned from one. I suddenly felt ignorant.
At a certain point in the service I had to wonder, why did I usually agree to observer status? Being in the midst of things, an active participant, was such a different and inspiring experience. I truly felt part of a worshipping community, instead of part of the peanut gallery.
It was such a powerful experience that just one week at a Conservative shul was enough to make me feel 'strange' in an Orthodox shul the week after. And the memory of that weekend has continued to inspire me over the past couple of years. Sometimes, though, your memory betrays you. I will be interested to see whether, two years on, I come away with the same positive impressions – and will report back, with further thoughts, on Sunday.