A few months ago a friend told me, "I feel guilty sometimes. I belonged to one well-known congregation for many years and recently I've been attending events and getting to know people at a different congregation that is much more warm and welcoming. Am I the Jewish equivalent of a Carolina politician (maybe John Edwards or Mark Sanford)? Or is it o.k. to enjoy two different communities?"
My initial reaction was to admit to my friend that I've been in the same situation several times myself. Even though I've been monogamous with my beloved wife Linda for over 30 years, I've enjoyed learning from several different congregations and teachers (sometimes as a full member and sometimes as a visitor paying a la carte). In addition, there were many years when my wife and I joined one congregation for our adult spiritual needs while belonging (at a reduced rate) to a second congregation for our son's educational needs.
What about you?
In the bountiful spiritual buffet of greater Los Angeles, should it be considered an act of disloyalty or an act of spiritual integrity to enjoy the diverse offerings of more than one congregation during the same time period?
To explore this question, I interviewed several women and men from the relatively new congregation, Ahavat Torah in Brentwood/Westwood, where I've been a member since 2004. I wanted to ask specific individuals (who sometimes say in more than one venue, "Mah tovu, how good are your dwelling places") to let them clarify why they do what they do. Their names and identifying details have been kept confidential. But you might find their insights and experiences helpful as we each explore our own journey for finding wholeness, wisdom, community, warmth, support, and Jewish aliveness in this diverse City of Angels.
Here is what I discovered from these interviews:
A FEELING OF 'HOME' AWAY FROM HOME
Several people told me they consider Ahavat Torah to be their "home congregation" while another community feels like "the congregation where I have a historical connection, but it doesn't feel as warm and welcoming now."
For instance, one woman admitted, "I was active at a particular congregation for many years and even got involved in the Sisterhood and other committees. Yet it didn't satisfy my developing needs of more intimate settings for study, prayer, and social action. So I began to consider Ahavat Torah my home because I have felt far more warmth there for my particular experiences, ideas, and personal needs. I can express my more spiritual and creative sides at Ahavat Torah and there's freedom to think 'outside the box' in this open-minded community, much more than at my other congregation."
Another woman suggested, "I had always felt like an outsider in a few particular large temples where there was so much pressure to look fancy and compete for status. But then a few years ago I found out it's possible to build a new kind of community that is more about honoring each person's unique soul and creative gifts. I finally feel like I've found a place that is 'home' now whenever I show up and join in with the passionate singing and the genuine conversations with people who truly care."
JUGGLING MORE THAN ONE FEE
Another man told me, "I grew up at a very prominent congregation where for many years I didn't enjoy much of what was going on, but it was my familiar and slightly-dysfunctional community nonetheless. I still have a bit of an allegiance to that congregation and so I pay an associate member fee to them. Then I began to connect with the way Gary Levine leads the services at Ahavat Torah with so much enthusiasm and joy. And I love the fact that Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and each of the other teachers are so inclusive and open in making the Torah portions extremely relevant and interesting. I decided to join their smaller congregation as a full member because Ahavat Torah dues are relatively inexpensive and my involvement with them consistently helps me to connect with Jewish insights and celebrations in a much more heartful way than I've ever done before."
Another woman explained, "I still meet with a monthly study group from another community and I pay an associate membership fee to that synagogue as a way to support the rabbi and her work. But Ahavat Torah is my home synagogue because of Gary's music and Rabbi Miriam being such a model of compassion, kindness and support to so many members. Plus I love the Social Action projects we do at Ahavat Torah and how the salons and classes and cultural events enrich my life."
IT'S ABOUT WARMTH AND BEING APPRECIATED FOR WHO YOU ARE
One woman who has sampled several local congregations commented, "The love, support, friendships, and creativity of the people I meet at Ahavat Torah have made me far more involved here than at the other places where I sometimes go for a specific event or lecture. Plus the fact that we as a congregation have designed our own easy-to-follow prayer book that makes it a lot more enjoyable to participate in Saturday morning services. More than anything, I feel a sense of family here."
I also interviewed a married couple at Ahavat Torah who attend lectures, music and cultural events at various temples throughout Los Angeles County. Yet they pay dues just at one congregation, Ahavat Torah, as they explained, "We love being part of a diverse and interesting Jewish community in Los Angeles, but we feel there's only one place where the warmth and genuine friendships occurred most easily. It's about much more than stimulation for the mind; it's about finding a group of people who respect the diversity of each individual soul."
One other woman admitted, "My parents were anti-religious so I didn't grow up attending Jewish services. Much of my adult life was involved in interfaith groups. But at Ahavat Torah I felt welcomed and included from the start, probably because it is such a grounded, functional, caring community. I very quickly started to feel a sense of being seen and appreciated for the unique person that I am. So I began to focus on doing more at Ahavat Torah and cutting back somewhat on my other spiritual involvements. Yet I have never felt judged or pressured at Ahavat Torah while I gradually decided to become a full member."
IS IT GEOGRAPHIC OR SOMETHING MORE PERSONAL?
I only found one man who had felt judged or criticized for participating in two different congregations. He told me, "I used to attend services sometimes at a place that was very near to where I live. But I rarely felt a personal connection to the Rabbi or the big machers who were always telling people what to do. So then I began to look at other congregations and when I returned one week to my neighborhood synagogue there were a few people who treated me like I'd done something disloyal or immoral. That was the week I decided to keep going the extra miles and become more involved with Ahavat Torah. The Rabbi, the Cantor, the board members, and the many volunteers each have a strong sense of openness and warmth that make it meaningful and enriching each time I come to an event. What a relief to find a congregation that is supportive and inclusive for every type of individual, whether you have money or not, whether you have a lot of Jewish experience or not, and whether you are a big macher or a humble and gentle soul."
For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation: One Torah, One People, Many Teachers, you can visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or read the personal weblog articles at http://www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com/.
Lively, inspiring, and interactive Shabbat services are held each Saturday morning at 10 am at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, 2 blocks west of Sepulveda, 1 block west of the 405 Freeway, between Sunset Blvd and Montana Avenue.
Prior to the Shabbat services, everyone is welcome at a Mussar ethics class that meets from 9-10am in the Fireside Room adjacent to the Sanctuary.
After services, there is a dairy pot-luck lunch buffet that is free and welcome to all.
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