As I begin writing this I’ve just finished doing something with my hair beyond sticking it in a ponytail for the first time in weeks. My husband is anxiously typing away at a work project on one of his rare “days off”. And even more rarely in our household, our son is napping for as long as he’d like. Tonight, most couples a year into parenting might be welcoming a sitter into their house for a much-deserved night out. More likely they’ll be curled up on the couch for a much-needed night in. We, however, will be dressing to the nines (more like sevens) for a night out at a local synagogue, baby and all.
Being Jewish married parents in your thirties would seemingly go hand-in-hand with the activity of synagogue shopping. You’d think so, anyway. My husband’s grandparents who helped establish their Long Island temple brightened at the prospect. His parents, however, were just a tad less enthused. “You don’t have to commit until your son is ready for Hebrew school,” my mother-in-law advised. Hers is a thought process common among our generation, at least the few who intend to take their future children to synagogue at all.
To be toting a toddler less than a year old to Tot Shabbats and open houses seems a bit much these days. Pursuing a faith community, let alone a relationship with God is seen by most as adding an unnecessary burden to a plate already overflowing with parenting, and work, and a household, and cell phones that never leave you alone. Hebrew school is an obligation you can’t ignore. Conversing with God, building friendships, finding your true north on the spiritual compass; those are luxuries you just can’t afford in a time-is-money economy.
But, sometimes in the midst of stress, luxuries are exactly what you need.
Last year I jumped out of the rat race to become a stay at home mother, fully believing that I’d find my fulfillment in parenting. What I’ve learned is that parenting, while indeed fulfilling, is also physically exhausting and emotionally draining hard work. Ironically, my son has often reminded me of the bosses I’ve had over the years, demanding the sum total of my energy and attention at all times. In a work world where technology blurs (or erases) the line between career and home life, the only thing that doesn’t quit is stress. Those who work hard often play hard for relief, but parents can’t exactly go out on an all-night bender or just pack a bag for a long weekend at a moment’s notice.
We can, however, find a community that proffers a safe space to let our children run free under the watchful eyes of more than one new Aunt, Uncle, Bubbe or Zayde. We can allow ourselves to get lost, if just for a few minutes, in the rhythm of antique melodies. We can refocus our brains away from stress and towards a holiness greater than ourselves. For a parent, the greatest benefit of teshuva can be the simple realization that there really is more to life than temper tantrums and an ardent refusal to nap.
But, there’s more to synagogue than simply being served. The right ones, in any case, are places to connect with likeminded and like-motivated individuals who claim more than a perfunctory place in Jewish life. So far in our search we’ve encountered two types of synagogue-goers: The ones who have to and the ones who want to. The ones who have to pursue synagogue the way careerists pursue craft beer: What quick and easy relief is on tap tonight? On the other hand, the ones who want to value the ability to give as much as receive. Real stress relief isn’t just burning off steam, it’s finding the place where you belong outside of your own front door.
Not that long ago my husband and I looked at each other after a hellish week of him working overtime and our son refusing to sleep. “Why are we doing this?” we asked each other. “There has to be more to life than this.” Now that our synagogue visit has passed, I recall sitting on the temple’s lawn that night, welcoming in Shabbat surrounded by the beauty of a crystal-clear, deep blue night sky. In the gorgeous simplicity of it all, the words of Psalm 92 struck me: “But You have greatly exalted me; I am anointed as with fragrant oil.” Yes, there is much more to life than this. There is exultation. There is anointing and the purpose that comes along with it. Thank God, when we’ve forgotten He’s given us a Shabbat and a kehillah to help us remember.