Looking for Sanctuary and Being Turned Away from the Synagogue of My Youth

Last month my husband, Steve, and I traveled from our home outside of Boston to visit our 23-year-old son, Matt, who had just moved to Chicago. We made reservations at an old boutique hotel about a mile and a half from his new apartment and once we arrived, I realized it was just a few blocks from the synagogue in which I grew up. I never knew the Windy City well, having lived in the suburbs and moving away once I left for college at the age of eighteen. It had been over three and a half decades since I had seen the synagogue of my youth.

I remembered well how each Sunday my mother would make the 45-minute commute into the city so that my sister, brother, and I could attend Hebrew school at our temple on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. My mother's family was poor, and when she was a young girl, this temple offered her family free membership. It was my mother's loyalty and gratitude to the temple that informed her decision to remain once she married and had a family of her own, now able to pay the membership's dues.

"We have to visit the temple," I told Steve and Matt on the Thursday my husband and I arrived at the hotel. "There's so much I want to see again and to show you," I said as I reflected on the years I had spent within those walls. They were both on board, but there was much we had to do first. After all, we hadn't yet begun the sacred mission of parents' country wide as their children embarked on new jobs in cities across America. First we had to make the holy pilgrimage to Target, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and the grocery store to stock up in abundance on items our adult children insist (rightly so) they can buy as needed. Somehow we believe that buying items such as cleaning supplies, frozen waffles, and granola bars in bulk will buffer them from the inevitable challenges they will face as they move forward into their future. As if having paper towels on hand, or cereal bars at the ready will in some way support our sons and daughters when facing a difficult boss or confronting a broken heart.

It wasn't until Saturday morning, after the errands were run, the sights were seen, the Chicago pizza was eaten and the bars were frequented that we set out to visit the temple.

Steve and Matt began to approach the massive building in the front, but in an almost visceral reaction I explained that those doors are locked except for the High Holy Days, and the entrance is at the side. Go figure. I can't tell you the number of times I walk into my kitchen for something, and can't remember for the life of me what it was I meant to get or do. Thirty-six years go by, and I remember exactly where it is I need to enter, and why.

I should explain that I have an ambivalent relationship with the religion of my birth. I've been a seeker all my life. For years I've been searching-though granted as I've moved into middle age half of the time it's for my car keys. But still.

As a child, I was interested in religion and spirituality. I loved riding my bike to different synagogues and churches and to the Bahia Temple, the only one on this continent that happened to be in my hometown. I would check out books at the public library on comparative religion and when I was ten years old, I bought a copy of the New Testament (and even at that young age I could see my mother's expression holding the image and imagined words of our ancestors: 'What New? The Old one was fine'), and read the four gospels. A couple of years later, I figured out a way to leave our temple's Sunday school during third period. One semester I dropped my third period elective class and was supposed to see the secretary in the school office to choose another class. I never went.

Instead, I would leave the building after second period, stop at the corner deli for a soft, doughy bagel and a salami stick, and then walk a few blocks this way or that way to an interesting-looking church. There I would find a vacant seat in the back row and listen to the service. I would return back to the hallways of my Sunday school just as the end of school bell rang. Until the synagogue and my parents caught on, it was great. Technically, for a few months during third period I didn't exist, which had a nice Buddhist ring to it.

Once in Sunday school I mentioned a parable from the Gospel according to Matthew. The teacher asked me where I had learned that information. I proudly answered that I had read it in the New Testament. She didn't share my enthusiasm. The next week she had the Rabbi visit our class. He said that Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jews don't believe this is true.

"What do you believe," he asked looking right at me. "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

"Aren't we all the Children of God?" I had answered. The Rabbi did not look impressed.

Steve and Matt followed me to the side of the Temple. The doors are massive, wooden, and heavy. When my son saw me struggling to pull open the door, he lent his muscle to the task. Note to self: it might be time to find a weight and conditioning class.

Once we tackled the doors, we came face to face with two large men sitting at a table. They looked like they were accomplished weight lifters, their muscles bulging and rippling underneath their shirts. Though it occurred to me that they might be in such good shape simply from having to open those mammoth doors every day.

I introduced myself on this Sabbath morning, explaining that I was a member of this synagogue growing up, had since moved away, and was now visiting our son who had just moved to Chicago. I told them that I just wanted to show them around the Temple. They explained that this was impossible, as it was necessary to call the synagogue ahead of time to schedule an appointment to visit. I understood security concerns, but really?

I tried again, explaining that I just wanted to visit the sanctuary, sharing my memories of how it looked growing up. Steve and Matt listened patiently as I reminisced about the vast space, of the feel of those red velvet chairs that folded down like seats in a movie theatre. I Remembered the years of High Holy Day services, and the times we would pick my frail grandmother up to take her to temple on the anniversary (the Yartzheit) of her husband's, my grandfather's death. How she would navigate the rows and rows in the sanctuary, looking up at the ark holding the sacred Torah. L'dor va dor-from generation to generation. For me, this Temple held the memories of the living, the dead and the Eternal.

"Sorry, can't let you enter without scheduling an appointment with someone from the temple to escort you," one of the men explained again. "Next time you'll have to call ahead."

Behind the table where they were sitting was the massive social hall. That room carried years of memories including my Bat Mitzvah celebration, confirmation, extensive involvement in our temple youth group and on-going Jewish education throughout my high school years. Full disclosure: I was committed to studying my Jewish heritage during this time, but I was also dating the Rabbi's son.

"Can I just take my husband and son into the Social Hall behind you?" I ventured. "You can see us from where you're sitting."

They didn't look thrilled, but they nodded in agreement. Steve and Matt followed me just to the beginning of the huge Social Hall and peeked in. I explained, in a voice and tone meant to include the men at the table, another memory of this space.

"In high school, our youth group had a shul-in. That's when you spend an evening and overnight at the Temple. We were playing soccer after dinner in here." I spread out my arms to mimic the expanse of the room, looking toward Matt who is a soccer player to confirm that yes, in fact this Social Hall is so big you absolutely could play soccer in that space. Having everyone's attention, I continued. "So the head Rabbi had three sons. I was dating the middle one, but the oldest one was there that night too, and when he kicked the soccer ball, he smashed the bottom of that stained glass window." The room is lined with stained glass windows, and I pointed to the one in the middle of the back wall.

"It's the stained glass window of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments," I explained, continuing on. "When the Rabbi heard the window was hit with a soccer ball he stormed in demanding to know who was responsible. We all pointed to his oldest son. His name might as well have been Isaac, his father quite possibly contemplating leading him up the mountain for binding and sacrificing in the footsteps of Abraham.

When I stepped back to the table where the two men were sitting, looking slightly amused but not inviting me to go any further into the Temple, I saw a woman coming out of an elevator who looked like she worked there. It appeared that no one else was in the Temple, except for a small group of people I noticed when I first walked in who were studying Torah in a room down the hall.

"Hi," I said to her, and she smiled and said hello. She greeted the men at the table and as she did I walked closer and introduced my husband, my son and myself. She offered her first and last name. I quickly gave her the Cliff Note version of my visit. Mother went to this Temple; I went here growing up; live in Massachusetts now; haven't been here in close to forty years; son just moved to Chicago to begin a new job; and about wanting to show them the synagogue of my youth on this Sabbath morning. She told me that my return to visit the temple warmed her heart. I smiled and she returned the smile.

I need to digress here and go back to Bed, Bath and Beyond for a moment. They used to take coupons that had expired, but their policy has changed and most stores won't take them anymore if their date has passed. A fair amount of the time I've been able to charm my way into a cashier's heart who has taken pity on my expired April coupon on a lovely May afternoon and has given me the 20% off. With this in mind, I repeated the story about the Soccer Ball versus Moses and the stained glass window fiasco, mentioning the Rabbi and his son by name to further validate my legitimacy. She smiled again and said she loved this story and the fact that I've come back to visit.

My opening had arrived. "So I really wanted to show my husband and son around, but I was told that I would need to make an appointment to walk into the Temple," I began.

She looked to the men at the table and said, "Yes, that's right. Who is it again that she would need to call?" Some information between the three of them was exchanged. She turned back to me and said, "Next time you're in town, be sure to call ahead of time to make an appointment to visit in the Temple. I just love that you took the time to come back and visit," she gushed. "It's just so wonderful!" she added.

We were nice, Steve, Matt and I. When she wished us Shabbat Shalom, which is how Jews address each other on the Sabbath, we smiled and offered Shabbat Shalom, too.

When we walked back out into the daylight, letting those massive forbidding doors close behind us, the three of us looked at each other and said, "What the F%$#&*?!!"

Walking down the block, Steve, Matt and I talked about how unwelcoming that experience was. "I figured the woman who worked there would have at least offered to walk with us to the sanctuary," Steve began. I nodded my head in agreement and Steve added, "It's clear we weren't a security threat." I looked over to Matt who had pulled out his iPhone. I figured he had been patient enough, and was texting friends to figure out the next place they'd be meeting up.

"You're not going to believe this," he said. "I just googled the name of the woman at the Temple. Just to see who she is."

Steve and I looked at Matt who was shaking his head with an exasperated look I haven't seen on his face since his teen-age years when I'd insist that he take a raincoat in case the meteorologist was wrong.

"She's one of the rabbis," he said, looking at us and handing over his iPhone so we could see for ourselves.

For a moment I was surprised, but only for a moment. It's not just the enormous wooden doors of too many temples around the country that are nearly impossible to open. It's the metaphorical doors as well. It's the us versus them mentality that permeates too many synagogues, the idea of having to pay to pray (let's face it. The idea of having to pay big bucks-or any bucks- for High Holy Day tickets is an awful idea and continues to be an embarrassment). Rabbis and Jewish leaders lament that there are too few Jews in the pews, then blame Jews themselves for walking away from their religion and right out of those heavy doors without questioning their part in the exodus away from synagogue life. The statistics confirm the decline in Temple membership and according to a 2010 survey for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 37% of Jews polled said that, aside from funerals and weddings, they attend religious services only a few times a year; 19% responded that they seldom attend religious services and 12% answered that they never attend religious services. That translates to 68% of Jews who rarely, if ever, attend synagogue.

So while Rabbis and leaders wonder why Jews are leaving their synagogues, might they also ponder how they respond when they come back?

We came back.

We weren't allowed to enter the temple.

The Rabbi sent us away and on Shabbat, of all days, when Jews the world over are supposed to pray in the sanctuary and connect with God, their inner Self and with one another. Rabbis and Jewish leaders worry as American Jews become an increasingly aging population, "What will become of the next generation?" They ask.

The next generation was standing right there in front of the rabbi. A 23-year-old young man, our son, new to Chicago. He was not welcomed inside. He was not invited to come to the synagogue to meet others, to celebrate Shabbat or the High Holy Days. He was not given a Temple Bulletin with events that might interest him. He was given a nod and the suggestion (unbeknownst to us at the time by the Rabbi, no less) to accompany his parents on some future visit when mom and dad are back in town and remembered to make an appointment ahead of time so that they could walk through the synagogue together.

Honestly, there's a more welcoming feel at Bed, Bath and Beyond, even on those occasions where they apologize that they are unable to take the expired coupons. Their doors open easily, automatically.

The word Shalom has three meanings: Hello, Good-bye and Peace. When we wish someone Shabbat Shalom, we are saying: Sabbath Peace. Steve, Matt and I realized that when the Rabbi said Shabbat Shalom, her intended salutation became embedded within those most unwelcoming doors. We did not hear Sabbath Peace. We heard instead: Sabbath Good-bye.

And I have to say, we will not be back to visit the synagogue of my youth. The doors were heavy when I was a child. As an adult, they are heavy still.

Ellen Frankel is a bereavement counselor at Care Dimensions, a non-profit hospice organization in Massachusetts, and is the author of numerous books including the novel Syd Arthur, about a middle-aged, suburban Jewish woman and her search for enlightenment 2,500 years after her namesake Siddhartha, the historical Buddha. You can visit her at: www.authorellenfrankel.com.