After such a light Rosh Hashanah service, I figured Yom Kippur services at Mickve Israel had to be fairly innocuous. Honestly, it wouldn’tve surprised me to see hors d’oeurves in the foyer. (Okay, that’s not fair. But at least a couple of congregants one related to me, ahem! felt morning coffee was perfectly justified.)
And just like every Reform Jew knows there will be some joker sucking on a peppermint in the next row, all Reform Jews expect to be hit up for money on the High Holidays. The congregation president’s self-conscious, I-hate-to-ask-but-since-I-have-y’all-here-for-once plea to fill the synagogue’s coffers is as familiar as the Aleinu in the Jewish world I grew up in. So when the parnassus (that’s what they call him here; why, I have no idea) got up on the bima to do his job, I did what I usually do, which is read the parts of the Gates of Prayer that that don’t make the cut into the service. Other people stared into space, some slept (maybe they were repenting, but c’mon, who drools when they daven?), some surreptitiously tried to move the gum they’d been chewing into a piece of paper without making revealing crinkly sounds. The parnassus droned on about the truly fabulous renovation that’s still carrying a half million debt; the congregation accepted it, just like they would accept the rabbi’s rambling sermon afterwards, because it is as much a part of the holy day as the truncated liturgy.
Then a voice yelled from the back pew “Excuse me, but this is the Day of Atonement! How dare you talk about money!” Everyone shook out of his or her stupor and turned to look at a short-haired woman shaking her fist at the back. “I am Jewish, but this is a disgrace! Shame on you all!”
The parnassus, who might’ve been putting himself to sleep with his own speech, stammered only slightly. “Well, thank you for your comments, ma’am. In any case, I know we all have college funds to fill, but ”
“No! Don’t you people know what this is? Moneychangers in the temple, hello?” The heckler grabbed up her purse and her companion and rushed toward the back door. But not before delivering this kicker: “I hope you all find Jesus!”
A small murmur went through the pews. The parnassus recovered admirably. “Well, I guess she probably didn’t leave tzedakah.”
He finished his speech and everyone went back to sleep. Except for the Yenta, who being a nosy little parker, followed the woman outside.
On the stairs, she was already explaining to another young yenta that she had grown up Jewish but had “found” Christ years ago. She had come to Mickve Israel with another Christian friend to “get back to their Jewish roots” but after this service, she didn’t feel that there was a place for her. “That’s just what I can’t stand about the Jewish people! They’re so clannish! So materialistic!”
When we pointed out that she had been welcome at Yom Kippur services precisely because this congregation is open to all meaning, no spendy High Holidays tickets the irony was lost on her. I told her I don’t know what they do at Conservative and Orthodox shuls, but I always understood that asking for donations is de rigeur for modern Judaism.
This did not console her. “These are the End Times, people!” (I swear, I could hear the capital letters.) “Israel is surrounded! You all need to come to Christ and be saved!” And then she and her friend, who was obviously mortified by this her friend’s very un-Christian behavior, walked off across Monterey Square.
By this time folks were trickling out of the sanctuary, using the end of the parnassus’ unexpectedly dramatic half hour to escape the rabbi’s upcoming sermon. I reported what had happened and in typical Reform fashion, the reaction was mild.
El Yenta Man laughed and said “I don’t need to find Jesus. I know exactly where he is, thanks.”
Dr. Doris Greenberg, a longtime family practioner and congregant, snorted and said “Let her go over to the Jews for Jesus place on Abercorn. See how she feels when they ask her for her ten percent tithe.”
Here someone disrupted the holiest of days, and people made jokes. No one called the police, no one got too upset, no one even suggested that the doors be closed to non-members next year. I suppose some might interpret this as apathy, but instead I saw something else in this congregation that I’ve been judging as too casual and unobservant: Everybody I spoke to wished the Jesus intruder well on this day of forgiveness. This congregation may only wear yarmulkes half the time and attend synagogue infrequently, but at that moment, it seemed to understand the gist of being Jewish. Let’s hope they thread that understanding to their checkbooks so the parnassus can keep it to under fifteen minutes next year.
Note: The graphic, borrowed from fancydresscostumeshop.com, is NOT what the parnassus was wearing. But maybe the congregation wants to add a little something to the tzedakah box to get him this for next year’s speech?