“Hey, Esther. There’s a place I think you’d like”, said my friend Karen.
Karen was an actor and knew about all the cool places in New York City.
“There’s a Friday night prayer service in a synagogue in Harlem, NY. I mean, it’s not actually in a synagogue it’s in a room of a church.
But it’s a synagogue. Well, it’s not only for Jews. I’m not Jewish. It’s actually for everyone, all races and nationalities, all ages and genders.
You would love it”.
It sounded terrible.
I thought she was going to tell me about a Broadway show she had free tickets for.
“And there’s this rabbi, Rabbi David.”
“Thanks, but no thanks”, I said.
Rabbis and synagogues were mostly in my past. I grew up in an Orthodox suburb of New York, on a dead end street, and left town about twice a year. Every May, we were taken on a class trip somewhere down the highway on a yellow school bus, and on Passover we went to dinner at my grandmother’s in the city.
The energy of my childhood was something like this:
Stay sheltered, stay small,
follow the rules, help your mother.
Synagogue on Saturday,
hear the rabbi’s speech.
Don’t talk to goyim, non-Jews.
Don’t slip up or you will
go to g’henom,
And so I did as I was told.
I’m not sure where my 20’s went, yet those years provided lifestyle changes and travels, as only life can and does for all of us. Littered around adulthood were new ideas, teachers, journeys, and horizons.
Women’s empowerment school,
felt strong for a bit.
Camping alone in the woods,
Trying to find something.
Yoga, writing, teaching dance therapy,
moving to California,
Forging my own path as they say. Taking what I liked and leaving the rest. Leaving the rabbis and synagogues behind for the most part.
Finding measures of peace. I was happy.
The spiritual struggle was real.
Studying the mind and body wasn’t enough to satiate the yearning that took place in my soul and spirit.
And Karen was relentless. For an entire year.
Come to Romemu.
Come to Romemu.
Come to Romemu.
So I said ok. I headed over, on a cold, dark night in New York City.
I entered, to the sound of a Tibetan bowl reverberating inside the high musty ceilings, and I heard a voice from upfront say something like this;
“Welcome. We welcome you.
Happy that you’re here.
It’s really important that you know that.”
There was a collective sigh of an entire congregation releasing the week consciously, with one deep breath. Given permission to do so. Knowing they were welcome here.
No one was in a rush.
“Let’s all take a breath together,
let’s close our eyes and meditate.”
The rabbi instructed us all to
close our eyes, gently scan our bodies,
to consciously breathe, releasing the week.
To embrace the spaciousness,
Some were opening a prayer book, a siddur, and some were sitting without one. Some sat with their eyes closed.
I inhaled, and as I sat down and exhaled, I felt a heavy pull, as if I was being anchored to the ground in one heavy, soft, silent, thump.
All was silent.
“Shalom Aleichem, Good Shabbos.”
“Page 5, Shalom Aleichem. Welcome.”
I looked around, and no one seemed to fidget or look at their watches. I opened my siddur and found page 5. All around me was a slow rise of voices joining in to sing Shalom Aleichem, the melody rising, harmonizing, the rabbi’s voice rising above all.
So this is what it’s like when souls sing.
Where I was raised, only the men went to the synagogue on Friday nights. The women set the table, dressed in their best and had fun catching up on the week’s gossip with the neighbors.
How did I miss out on something like this? I felt like I was in an alternate universe.
Note by note, the song seemed to carry itself around the room, touching each persons heart over and over until the song was complete. And then came the next prayer, the next song.
I just stood there.
“Invite Shabbat in.”
I recognized one of the songs as a melody of the great singer/composer, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, zt’l. I imagined him walking in at any moment, to sing along, as the love for his fellow man that he was known for felt alive in the room with his melody.
Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbat; The whole wide world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos.
And suddenly the dam was broken.
As Rabbi David translated the words to the melody Higale Na, uncover the coverings of the weak, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t stop.
Higale Na. Cover me in the love and the experience of being held in the shelter of peace and safety, surrounded by those who love me and know me. Surrounded by the peacefulness of not doing…
Panic set in. I was taught that you’re not allowed to cry on the Sabbath. No matter what. No matter what. Shabbat is a day of joy. The no’s of my childhood are my default, unless I could reason my way out.
I couldn’t reason my way out and make it ok to cry. I hoped no one around me would stare at me or ask me to leave. But I couldn’t stop crying.
It was magic-like. The familiar prayers, the songs and the pauses for quiet, the rabbi’s words of hope and wisdom. The people were of all ages, stages and places, all dressed in their own unique way. We were there together, holding space for the Shabbat, for ourselves, for each other.
It took four more Friday nights until I found myself singing along. The spiritual struggle felt healed, and what was left was quiet joy, peace, and a new way to experience the faith of my childhood.