On a Shabbat morning, more than 34 years back, I decided to visit Sinai Temple, a conservative Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles. At the time, having been displaced from Iran, my country and home, I did not know much about Conservative Judaism. In fact, apart from a cursory idea about the religious philosophies of Orthodox Judaism, I knew nothing about Reform Judaism either. As I entered the sanctuary, the memory of my last Yom Kippur in Iran, where women were banished to the back of the sanctuary or an upstairs balcony to be subjected to heat, gossip and peering at the Torah from behind a sheer curtain, came to life. Around mid-day, the entire congregation of men came to their feet, raising the screech of metal chairs. A red velvet upholstered armchair was carried above heads to the front of the sanctuary, a place of honor for an important member of our community. The memory would have been forgotten if not that by the approach of sunset prayers were stalled, funds had to be raised, and our dear dignitary sat unresponsive on his throne. It appeared that we would have to endure the heat, thirst, and hunger for many more hours. Then, a not-so-important member of our community raised his hand and abandoned his folding metal chair. A contribution was made. Prayers resumed.
But that Shabbat in California in the pleasantly air-conditioned Sinai Temple sanctuary, I sat awestruck, unable to believe that a religious service could prove so powerful, uplifting, personal, and spiritually transporting — Rabbi Silverman was our chief rabbi then and Joseph Gole our cantor. I became a member.
In the next years, much drama was played on Sinai Temple’s stage, on its bima, the perimeters of its sanctuary, the steps that lead down to our choir, where Ariel Cohen continues to create inspiring music. My children and grandchildren have had and continue to have their bar and bat mitzvah here. Rabbis have come and gone. This is life!
During high holidays, my younger brother used to visit me in the main sanctuary to encourage me to come up to the upper level to hear Rabbi David Wolpe’s sermons. I was loath to give up my “place of honor” in the main sanctuary. Thankfully, the powers that be came together to shine their lucky stars upon our congregation and Rabbi Wolpe became our chief rabbi.
I say all this to get to “The Letter” that was sent to members, informing us that our rabbis have decided to officiate gay marriages. No need to delve upon the hoopla that announcement created among members, the entire community, and a good part of America, I assume. The matter was discussed in local and national papers and hotly debated between friend and foe. I’ve been dealing with a divided house myself — is it or is it not a rabbi’s right to interpret the words of the Torah?
Four weeks ago, the spiritual muse happened to call and my husband and I attended Shabbat services. Rabbi Wolpe gave the first of his three-part sermon: “Conservative Judaism and Israel.” The second part was about “Conservative Judaism and the Torah,” and the third dealt with “Conservative Judaism and God.” You can hear the sermons on www.sinaitemple.org and member will receive CDs.
The popular assumption is that one either inherits a religious institution or else joins because one is familiar with and agrees with its religious ideologies. Not necessarily. I, for one, joined this congregation because I enjoyed the feel of community, the spiritual environment and the enlightening sermons. To put it simply, the experience felt good to me. But that’s not enough, and Rabbi Wolpe, recognizing the need to educate his congregation, embarked on the difficult task of explaining Conservative Judaism.
What I learned during those three weeks of heated post-sermon debates was that some beliefs are so deeply embedded that the mind’s door locks itself to any fresh argument, making it difficult, if not impossible, to persuade us one way or another. But I also learned that Rabbi Wolpe’s three sermons left us each with a different resonating thought, succeeding to nudge our mind’s door ever so slightly open. And this is a measure of unprecedented success.