Returning Home

By: Rachel Lelonek  |  April 19, 2018

Once a year, I wake up early on a Shabbos morning, earlier than I generally do. I put on my sturdiest walking shoes in anticipation of the long trek ahead of me. I walk a mile further than my two-mile journey to my current place of worship and venture down the familiar road that brings me to a building where I spent nearly every Sabbath for approximately sixteen years. I return home to my former Conservative synagogue and experience a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

It is never easy for me to go back to my former synagogue, the traditional Conservative “temple,” which I grew up attending. So many memories–both positive and negative–flood my consciousness along the three-mile walk each year. But I rationalize it to myself, telling myself that this isn’t a trip for my own sake. I go every year, when my mother recites a haftarah the week before my grandmother’s yahrzeit, remembering the woman who was a third parent to me. This is my way of showing kivud eim to my mother and honoring my grandmother’s memory.

As I begin my walk and pass by the local non-denominational church, my religious transformation flashes before my eyes. I envision my earliest memories in pre-school in the synagogue’s basement with Mrs. Kroll and Mrs. Dolberg. I was constantly chosen as the teacher’s assistant, especially when we discussed Judaism, as my parents and grandparents were proud cultural Conservative Jews. I was more knowledgeable than the other children since I went to shul each week with my mother and grandmother, my family kept kosher and had Friday night dinner each week, and after nearly losing my thumb at five years old, I went to Junior Congregation each Shabbat morning because the instructor was the EMT who saved my finger. In the traditional synagogue where my preschool was, there was no partition between men and women. Men were called to the Torah and led most synagogue services while women read Prayers for the State and for the Israeli Defense Forces; it was the Conservative movement of old.

As I edge closer and cross between the two eruvim, I remember my days in my local Solomon Schechter, the educational arm of the Conservative movement. Throughout my days in elementary and middle school, I was taught modern Hebrew, the weekly Torah portion, Jewish role models from the Bible, the Conservative movement’s renditions of the Shacharit prayers, and all of the twelve tribes. I learned what Shabbat and kashrut were in more detail, even if most people didn’t really care about either or follow them at home. I was one of the top students in my Judaic Studies classes, and was the person my other classmates consulted with questions before exams. I participated in the United Synagogue Youth’s pre-Kadima and Kadima programs for students in fourth  through eighth grades, and was the youngest member in my temple’s choir. All of my friends were halachically Jewish–either with two Jewish parents or a mixed marriage with a Jewish mother. And while my family did not keep Shabbos, the Sabbath was delineated as a family time and I did not hang out with friends until it was over. I never questioned anything I was taught by my parents or teachers because I thought if it was being taught in a school or at home, it must be completely and undeniably true. I was taught by my teachers and mentors that we were following the correct interpretation of Judaism and that anything more was too extreme and anything less was not enough.

I approach the overpass over the highway, marking the middle of my trek, both physically (to the synagogue) and metaphorically (in my religious journey). Shortly after I entered high school, my grandmother passed away and my world came crashing down. My grandmother had been my religious pillar and the world seemed like it could not exist without her. While my academic career continued, I was reeling inside. But something changed about my education as well; as I got older, the material I was learning in school became more controversial and harder for me to believe. I was taught the documentary hypothesis, which claimed G-d was not the sole author of the Torah. I was introduced to Gemara, but through an academic lens that had no appreciation for the oral tradition. Egalitarianism was forced down my throat, even if I wanted a more traditional Jewish lifestyle. This egalitarianism was very apparent, both in school, where women could lein Torah, wear a tallit, tefillin or kippa if they wanted to, and in shul, where women were now able to read the haftarah and its blessings, as well as open and close the ark during the service. And as my pain grew from missing my grandmother, my resentment grew towards religion–both because of my grandmother’s absence and because what I was being taught seemed to me like heresy. I began to despise Judaism and would act out by attending parties on Friday nights, no longer going to synagogue on Shabbat mornings. I was hanging out with sketchy friends as I became skeptical of what my teachers were teaching me in school and my grades began to drop. I no longer remained in USY either. But I was hurting and angry, so I paid no mind to any of this at the time.

As I cross the largest intersection on my walk, I am met with my own crossroad that I faced about six years ago in the spring of 2012. I was a shell of myself and unhappy. It was the end of my sophomore year and I was due to take my SATs with my suffering grades. I turned to an observant friend, who mentioned in passing the concept of Kol Isha. I remember clear as day when I asked one of my rabbis what the concept was, and to my dismay, received the answer: “We don’t follow that concept here.” There was no explanation, not any previous mention of this law in the classroom. Even though my school did not enforce the observance of Shabbat or kashrut, we still learned it in detail, so why not this? I felt lied to and deceived. What other things had they failed to disclose to me? My questions and frustration led me to a Bible teacher, who suggested I search outside of the Conservative movement for answers. This suggestion both surprised and scared me, as I had never thoroughly explored Judaism outside the Conservative movement and was hesitant to do so. But that summer, I took her suggestion and began to do a lot of research, which showed me many contradictions and problems with Conservative Judaism.This ultimately led me to the Orthodox synagogue one mile down the road.

It’s been six years since I began that journey, and as I approach the wide steps leading up to the synagogue, butterflies form in my stomach. It’s been six years filled with both happiness and strife, from countless conflicts with various members of my immediate and extended family over religion to successes in my learning and my growth in Yiddishkeit. I was fortunate enough, by the grace of G-d, to spend an incredible and inspirational year in Jerusalem, Israel, but I also unfortunately lost my paternal grandmother, from whom I was estranged. It has been the wildest ride of my life and it has certainly left me questioning many times. But each year, as I enter my former home once again, I am reminded of the decision I made to leave and why it was the correct decision for me.

At the beginning of my nearly three hour stay, I daven in the lobby of the building and enter the sanctuary during the Torah reading. I receive several stares from the 40-something people present in the room–some friendly and some coarse, judging and unwelcoming, but I pay no attention, as I am there for my mother. I join her and my sister in the pews and proudly smile as she recites the beautiful haftarah. I stay the remainder of the service and am received warmly by those sitting with my mother; all of them welcoming me back as if I had never left. After the service, I follow the crowd into the social hall and catch up with a few people before mincha, where my mother gives her mother’s name for the Kel Maleh.

Towards the end of the service, I overhear one woman ask my mother what she will be doing once the shul closes. Closing? I ask my mother and to my dismay, my mother informs me that a week prior, the synagogue had called for a meeting and decided that after sixty-five years, a dwindling membership, and no new affiliates in several years, the synagogue would be closing in the June of next year. I am shocked and overwhelmed by my many mixed emotions. I am extremely sad to hear that my childhood home is closing, but I also feel a small–very small–sense of relief knowing that I will no longer need to return to a place where many of the members judge me for leaving the movement and not continuing the synagogue for future generations. It was the same small sense of relief that I felt when my local “kosher” deli (the type of kosher establishment that is open on Shabbos and sells the questionable Hebrew National brand) closed while I was in Israel. While I would certainly miss the deli and the memories that came with it, it was no longer a place where I could be, or felt welcomed at, when I returned.

It is nearly one o’clock as I leave the building with my mother. She turns to the left and heads down the ramp to the back parking lot to get her car as I walk down the stairs and begin my walk home. I am left reminiscing about the many memories I have growing up in this building, the place I called home for nearly sixteen years. But with the closing of this building and house of prayer comes an even more prominent reality for me: the closing of my childhood, and more importantly, the end of the Conservative Movement.

For the last few decades, Conservative Judaism and the institutional United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism have been losing people (to Reform Judaism on the left, Orthodoxy on the right or those who have become completely unaffiliated). There are many who no longer call the Conservative Movement their home. The traditional Conservative of old is dwindling and the USCJ tries to find innovative ways to keep their members by moving more towards egalitarianism with women in more public, as well as pulpit, roles. In recent years, the Conservative Movement has also been accepting individuals with at least one Jewish parent–whether mother or father–as Jewish, even if they are not halachically Jewish. This new generation of pseudo-Jews is passing as Jewish and, since my graduation from Schechter in 2014, has been accepted into many Schechter schools across the country without any questions or queries.

It’s very weird returning to my old home. On the one hand, there are many welcoming old faces who I know deeply care about me and my family. On the other hand, I feel judged by piercing eyes that are filled with contempt and the belief that I think I am “holier than Thou.” While I am filled with sadness about the fact that my childhood home is closing, I am left to wonder what would have been if I had stayed as I walk all the way home.