It’s only been 10 years, but I have finally found a shul in Teaneck (in reasonable walking distance, that is) that I feel comfortable with.

But I really shouldn’t call it a “shul.” It’s a Sephardic synagogue, or beit knesset, Congregation Shaarei Orah, that I have come to admire. It moved into a beautiful new building this spring after meeting for years in the cramped basement of one of its members.

When we first moved to Teaneck, there were two major synagogues in close walking distance. One of them is around the corner from our house and offers many programs and classes for adults and children alike. It wasn’t long before my husband fell in with some men there, very nice but older than us and with children who were basically grown.

From the beginning, I never felt I had a place there. Sure, we were invited to a new members’ lunch the first summer we joined and received the customary welcome package. I have found that it is a multi-generational shul, which in this case means generations of the same families davening there, and not being as open to newcomers. With several hundred members, the shul’s halls are filled on Shabbat with people yapping away while services are taking place. Kids go in and out of the main sanctuary — often for the purpose of snagging candy — and few members greet you with a “Good Shabbos.”

The lack of warmth or intimacy was most apparent at my second son’s  brit mila. The rabbi came in only at the end of the ceremony to wish us a mazel tov — but it was clear he didn’t know who the heck we were.

But what irritates me the most about the shul is the way it chooses to celebrate Simchat Torah. Not only do women not get to hold or even see a Torah up close, they do not even dance together on one of the most exhilarating holidays of the year. Their only chance to participate — besides partaking in the gala kiddush at the end of the holiday — is a women’s shiur on Simchat Torah eve, given by the rabbi in a downstairs classroom or social hall while the men are stomping away over their heads.

By last fall, I had basically had enough. For Simchat Torah I walked 1.4 miles to one of the more progressive Orthodox shuls in town that offered a women’s Torah reading. But making that trek in the winter or heat of summer is not practical, and I needed an alternative.

Then, one Shabbat a few weeks ago, my good friend whose husband is of Syrian descent invited me to a kiddush at the Sephardic congregation, which had recently moved into its own building. I figured I had nothing to lose, and came for the service.

I ended up pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt. While initially I chafed at the idea of the building’s high-in-the-sky women’s balcony — I found that I actually liked being able to look out at the trees and having my own “space.” I had little trouble following along with the service using the Orot Sephardic siddur and loved hearing the tefillot sung loud and clear, especially when a group of boys were called up — a weekly tradition – to sing “Yimloch Hashem” after the Torah reading. No Ashkenazi mumbling here!

Then there is the kiddush. Not only is there one held each week, but it comes complete with spicy cholent prepared by one of the (male) members of the congregation, and occasionally with bonus items like Moroccan cigars instead of the usual Ashkenazi potato kugel. There is no mad stampede for the food as at most large shuls. Better yet, people actually talk to you and — gasp — introduce themselves. I love the different accents in the room — Israeli, Russian, French/Moroccan, and the fact that the dress is slightly more casual than at most Ashkenazi shuls — in other words, my boys can wear (clean) sneakers!

I also feel that being part of a small congregation entails more responsibility on the part of its membership, and teaches my children that we can’t just blend into the background and expect others to step up. Last Shabbat I filled in as a youth group supervisor while the rabbi’s wife, who normally is in charge, was in Israel.

To that end, we have joined the synagogue as affiliate members, but I plan to make it my regular Shabbat hangout. My husband, who grew up in an Orthodox shul not so different from our current one, feels more comfortable where he is, but because it ends slightly earlier than Shaarei Orah, he can walk over and join us afterward.

And while the harif cholent may be the main incentive to get my older son to come to shul these days, the fact is that both he and his brother also feel at home in a smaller environment (they are familiar with both Sephardi and Ashkenazi tefillot thanks to their amazing school — more about that in a future blog post!). How refreshing to be on the same page with them!

Hazak u’baruch!!

A Sephardi sefer Torah at the Four Sephardi Synagogues complex in Jerusalem’s Old City 
Photo by Lori Silberman Brauner