Southern Services

mickve israelA new year brings new experiences, so I attended Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Mickve Israel on Monterey Square in Savannah (if you’re a Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil fan, this should mean something to you.) It’s quite an impressive building, isn’t it? It’s as stunning on the inside as out, all naves, arches, towers and stained glass. Plenty of non-Jews visit and tour the grounds. In fact, while crossing the square to the entrance, you’d best take care not to get run over by a tour bus.

Mickve Israel is the Reform flavor of the city’s three congregations; the others, Conservative Agudath Achim and Orthodox Bnai Brith Jacob, are known respectively as “A.A.” and “B.B.” and don’t have nearly as dramatic digs or the swank downtown location. Maybe it’s because Mickve Israel was the first congregation in Georgia, founded by 42 Portugese and German Jews in 1733 — making it the third oldest congregation in America. The history of the people and the building (including a recent multi-million renovation of the social hall and Hebrew school) evokes much pride among congregants and locals alike — Mickve Israel is truly an icon in a city full of architectural gems.

When El Yenta Man and I were dating, I flew over for a December visit while he was taking a break from grad school and took a tour of the synagogue, where his mother was a docent. Standing at the back of the sanctuary with the soft winter light glowing through the famous windows, I was startled by the sudden knowledge that I would stand in this same spot in a wedding dress, and that this cute guy I’d been seeing for the last six months would be waiting for me under the chuppah. The wedding was nine months later, and no one seemed to mind at all that it wasn’t in Scottsdale.

But (yes, there’s a bit of a kvetch coming) sitting in services Friday and Saturday I began to question whether this congregation is my spiritual fit. I mean, it should be; my husband was bar mitzvahed there, I got married there, for heaven’s sake. It’s absolutely gorgeous and the people are kind. Yet, I found myself distracted from the liturgy by the pointy windows and pastel glass — and especially the choir. And the organ. Which were hidden in the back balcony rather than on the bima, giving the effect of mysterious voices singing “Aveinu Malkeinu” from the ether.

So combined with the gothic interior and the un-tradition of most men not wearing yarmulkes in the sanctuary, it seemed…almost…churchy.

And I can completely understand it: This is a congregation that has thrived in the deep South, probably because it tries hard to get along with its Christian neighbors. It has taken Reform Judaism to a practically painless level; services were under two hours and mostly in English. It was the kind of High Holy Days ritual that the people interviewed in today’s JTA article about Jews who don’t attend services might enjoy rather than epic, “boring and incomprehensible” sessions that turn off so many young Jews.

By scaling back on some of the spiritual traditions that have little meaning for folks whose families have lived in the South for four or five generations (and therefore have little connection to the “Old Country”) but promoting a strong cultural presence in the larger community, this congregation is phenomenally successful at giving Savannah’s Reform Jews a positive identity and a beautiful place to pray comfortably.

I suppose that’s it: I think maybe I need a little more pain in my prayer. I need a mournful “Mourner’s Kaddish,” I need people belting out “Adon Olam,” I need a shofar blower who turns red and spits. I always feel that I don’t know enough about the Torah and the rituals (the food — that I know) and it felt very weird this Rosh Hashanah to actually miss this parts of the liturgy that were left out. Could it be that I’m becoming more religious in my old age or is this motivated by guilt? Did anyone else experience a dearth of spiritual connection at services this year? Did you go at all?

2 thoughts on “Southern Services

  1. My Dear Jessica,

    Sad to say you struck a nerve here too. Your mother and I sat in a beautiful and somewhat uppity Scottsdale reform synagogue with which you are quite familiar. Though the service was rescued by touches of tradition and the best cantor ever, I still find it disconcerting when organ and choir boom out passages meant to be reflective. When I whispered to the friends sitting next to me that we had just heard the Phantom of the Opera Sh’ma they turned plaid trying not to laugh.
    It started me thinking, though, that synagogues (and churches too for that matter) reflect, as you say, the needs of the congregration. Having been around a generation longer I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways. When the need for spiritual discipline arises the leaders will be there to fill it. You’ve got a long way to go to “old age” but as the times demand more serious religious attention, and they will, young people like yourself in all congregations will follow the appropriate path. Enjoy the ride.

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