A Makeshift Synagogue and Me

Sundown Wednesday was Yom Kippur. I don't think I believe in God, and yet, my family, Jewish summer camp -- I don't know what they did to me, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for my religion.
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I am not sure what my family or my synagogue did to me while I was growing up, but I have a soft spot in my heart for my religion. I don't think I believe in God, and I can never keep the stories of Jacob and Isaac and that coat of many colors straight. And yet, put me in shul with a congregation singing Hebrew prayers to the tunes I recognize from my years at Temple Beth Shalom or my summers at Camp Eisner, and I melt. I want to do nothing more than smile and enjoy the music with my friend or family member sitting next me. Yes, I admit it, I become one big ball of cheese.

Sundown Wednesday was Yom Kippur, the most important time of the year. Between last week's Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, God writes the book for the upcoming year. He decides who is going to have good things happen to them, and who is going to have bad things happen. And so during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Jews say sorry to all who they have wronged over the past year. They think about what they did, and who they hurt, and how they sinned, and they ask for forgiveness. (Or at least that's how I remember my dad explaining it. Feel free to visit factcheck.org.)

And then, on Yom Kippur, when it's the final hours before God seals the deal, Jews pray and pray and pray, asking God's forgiveness for their sins. Jews fast both to atone for their sins and, according to the rabbi tonight, because they have no time to eat since they are so busy praying.

Since Yom Kippur seems all about one's relationship with God, and since I don't think I believe in God, it would seem logical that I need not celebrate this holiday. I could have skipped it. And I almost did, for many good reasons. I just started a new job and didn't want to upset my boss by taking off a day of work. I like to eat and am a really bad faster. I went home for Rosh Hashana last week and didn't want to schlep upstate another two hours this week.

But then I talked to my mom, and she said, "You know, Hanna, this is what Jews do." As I transition from my childhood to who I am as an adult, I often have to decide what type of life I will lead. And I want it to be a Jewish one.

Plus, there was that whole God-deciding-the-year part. Yeah, just in case, I figured I should probably make sure I'm on his good side.

I hurried home from work, did the candles prayer (are you supposed to light candles on Yom Kippur? Why not -- always a nice touch), filled up on two plates of stir-fry and rice with my Buddhist Burmese husband as I pretended not to notice that the sun had already gone down, and hurried off to meet a friend at the synagogue.

Well, "synagogue" is stretching it. My friend and I went to a service organized by Ohel Ayalah for Jews in their 20s and 30s who live in New York City and don't belong to their own congregation. It's a brilliant idea -- a way of giving people a chance to celebrate the High Holidays even if they don't belong to a temple or can't afford the high High Holidays ticket costs.

Given the non-profit nature of the idea, the chosen location for our services had ... character. It was a big empty space in a building on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Construction ladders leaned against the walls. The windows were all boarded up; some had black sheets hanging on them by a thread. At one point in the service we heard a loud thud as if a piece of construction had just fallen down. The congregation chuckled.

And yet, despite the lack of proper heating or comfortable chairs, despite the absence of a congregation of families who grew up with one another, despite the loudspeaker near my seat that kept having technical problems and buzzing at inopportune moments, it was one of the more beautiful Yom Kippur services I've been to.

The rabbi made dorky jokes that were totally endearing. And then he went into short sermons about what Yom Kippur represents, and how you can make it meaningful in your life. He talked about the need not to develop new values but instead to reevaluate your life so you are living out the values you already have.

A young woman with a beautiful voice served as a cantor. One of my closest friends, who sings so fine that she could harmonize with the cantor, sat next to me singing along to the prayers. It felt like I had my equally musical sister with me. We sang in Hebrew, and read in English.

Listening to the prayers, I remembered my years in Hebrew School reciting those lines. I thought about my family, and the countless holidays I have spent with them. I thought about sneaking out of services at the Concord to run around with my younger cousins. I envisioned my mom and sister chatting during a service in our local temple, and me being embarrassed and repeatedly trying to hush them up.

Now that I am older, and my family members live in different cities, I know that I have to make my own congregation and will likely spend many more services without my parents and big sister. And yet, even though it's sad to know that we can't be together as much, nothing brings me emotionally closer to my family and my childhood than praying in a -- makeshift -- synagogue on a High Holiday. I know that my mom is doing the same in Monroe, my dad in Westchester, and my sister in DC.

When people find out that I strongly identify as Jewish, they often assume I believe in God. To them, that's what being religious is about. To me, it's much more than that. What about all the God stuff in the text of the prayers? I usually just gloss over that. I focus on the music and the memories and the lessons about how to live life. And most important, on my family. Even sitting with a congregation full of faces I didn't recognize, I felt like I belonged. I thought about the role Judaism has played in shaping who I am, about how it has taught me to value learning and helping others.

And just in case there is a God, I tried my hardest not to eat until sundown Thursday. I wanted to make sure only good things were written in my Book of Life profile.

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