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Synagogue Stresses Me Out

February 5, 2010

Driving far, not knowing many people, forgetting the names of people I don't see very often, not being able to follow along with the changing service, not being able to join in the singing because I don't know the songs ... These are a few of the reasons why going to the synagogue stresses me out.

Yours, mine and our stress

speed limit 55I don't belong to a synagogue, at the moment. There are may reasons why I ended my membership at the Reform synagogue I attended (which my parents were founding members in 1960) for most of my life. Among those are things which developed into stressors over the years: distance, growth of the congregation, movement toward more traditional practices and personal reasons, as well.

I married a man who is Catholic. My rabbi, who became "our rabbi," when we joined as a family, wouldn't marry us. He did perform the baby naming service for our daughter, though, which was held when she was 6 months old, after her adoption became final.

When our daughter was old enough, she began attending religious school at this same synagogue. Over the years, the membership numbers had swelled so that there were at least 25 kids (over 400 students in the religious school) in each of the classes, which were mostly taught by uncertified staff. And although the curriculum was interesting and relevant, there were class management problems, yelling and mayhem, which our daughter complained about.

When I was young, this same congregation was very small. I knew everyone, even as a young child, and remember the services and educational components were always fun. The religious school originally started with 14 students, and I was in a class of about six students. We all knew each other very well, and saw each other outside of the synagogue, even though we didn't live near each other.

By the time she was in third grade, our daughter didn't like going to religious school, and would fight not to go. By fourth grade, we were bribing her to go, with trips to McDonald's. Stress and bad nutrition is not a good combination!

As we neared the years of preparation for her bat mitzvah, I spoke with the rabbi about what our daughter's bat mitzvah service would look like. During the preceding years, my husband contributed considerably with our daughter's Jewish education, especially when it came to helping her with her Hebrew homework, which he took as an opportunity to learn alongside her. When we talked about the bat mitzvah, my husband said he would really like to participate in the part of the service where the Torah is passed down, from the hands of the grandparents, to the parents, to the child, as he felt it also symbolized his involvement and support throughout her Jewish education. When I spoke of this to our rabbi, he said my husband would not be allowed to do this, period, end of discussion. Stressful, upsetting, disappointing.

In addition to all of this, we were coming up to the years when we would be going to the synagogue three times a week--for Sunday school, midweek Hebrew on Wednesdays, and Friday night service--which were all required pieces for a student preparing to become a bat mitzvah.

We had many a family discussion during the summer after fourth grade, and decided to make a change, the following year.

Sometimes Nature Calls

Speaking of distance, we live about 28 miles from the synagogue, which translates into a 35 mile drive, or 50 minutes to an hour, in traffic. I served on a committee for a while, at the synagogue. This committee met periodically on a week night. Because of distance and traffic, it always took me an hour to get there. Good thing there was a K-Mart on the way, where I could just run in and make a beeline for the ladies' room. That was stressful.

What's her name?

Over time, the congregation began to grow. It grew, and it grew, and it grew. Eventually, what started out with maybe half-a-dozen families has grown to over 550 families.

I don't consider myself to be antisocial, but attending services with this immense group of people, most of whom I don't know, stresses me out. Who are these people? What are their names? Why can't I remember anyone's name? ("Honey, what's that woman's name over there, the one in the brown jacket?") I sit throughout services, going through the alphabet trying to remember the names of people I rarely see, and that stresses me out.

Watch out what you wish for

In an effort to better meet the needs of myself and my family, I became involved in starting a Jewish community closer to home. About a dozen people began meeting, and eventually formed Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors (FVJN), a Jewish community group, located less than 10 minutes from my house.

Our daughter led services for her bat mitzvah with FVJN. My husband, who is still Catholic, involves himself in this group, and was recently elected to serve on the board.

There are still things I stress about. For the past five years, I?ve been leading Friday evening Shabbat services once a month at FVJN, and sometimes Havdalah services, too. I arranged the service, lead the services, and play the guitar and sing for the services. While I do experience stress for about a week before I lead each service, it has gotten better. What's really helped is that two other people have now gotten involved in leading services, so I can take a step back and enjoy attending services, again.

Yes, additional help has come through growth, but we are still a small group, in which everyone has a voice, which they are encouraged to share and be heard. And while there is more work, in some regard, this group is a much better, much less stressful fit, for myself and for my family.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "separation" or "distinction," the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rachel Baruch Yackley

Rachel Baruch Yackley is a freelance writer, nonprofit administrator, educator, mother and wife. For over 13 years, her articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. Rachel also leads services, song leads, teaches religious school and volunteers with Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors in Geneva, IL.

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