A Wandering Jew on Park Avenue

Exploring New York’s Liberal Jewish Scene on Shabbat

A screenshot from Google maps of one of the synagogues on Park Avenue, New York.

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I would consider myself more or less traditional in terms of my view on theology, Jewish practice, and spirituality in general. Although I was not raised in an overly traditional Jewish setting, I feel very at home in Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations when a healthy Messianic synagogue is not readily accessible.

A few weekends ago, while staying in New York City, after having attended my favorite Modern Orthodox shul the week before, I decided to return to my roots. I decided to connect with the tradition of my ancestors for the last hundred years. I decided to go to a Reform synagogue!

I wandered around a few blocks in the humid Manhattan heat (it was by no means early in the morning as I overslept an hour and a half past my intended wake up time), and I arrived at one of the famed Reform congregations of New York City.

When I walked in through the metal detector, past the kind yet burly security guard who wished me a warm "Good Shabbos," I enjoyed the beauty of the synagogue, yet I recalled how saddened it made me that these security precautions were necessary. Every Shabbat the New York Police Department sends officers to every known synagogue in Manhattan. There are always a pair of officers or a cop car in front of any given synagogue, and in addition, those synagogues that are more successful financially pay for their own security within the building. These thoughts notwithstanding, I was excited to come into this famous, well established congregation.

When I walked into the sanctuary, however, I was shocked at how empty it was. My presence did not even make an egalitarian minyan. There must have only been seven or eight people, including myself, the associate rabbi who was leading, and the cantor accompanying her.

As soon as I walked in, the rabbi greeted me with an excited "Shabbat Shalom" and she asked me to sit down and help discuss this week's Torah and haftorah portion. We talked about the phrase tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice you shall pursue). I was pleasantly surprised with the knowledge of our leader, and how versed she was about Orthodox and Chasidic interpretations and customs. Her sincerity and kindness also struck me.

Fifteen minutes after I had arrived we were already saying the Aleinu and closing out service with the Mourner's Kaddish and Adon Olam. I had never been to a service that ended at 11:30am. I stayed for Kiddush and then left after schmoozing for ten minutes, feeling the need for more liturgy and service, yet still remaining true to my dedication of this Shabbat to my Reform roots.

Then I wandered by a Reconstructionist synagogue. I have never been to this type of congregation, and out of sheer curiosity, and because of the warm people beckoning me in, I decided to take the plunge.

I entered with preconceived notions of what Reconstructionists believed and practiced. I walked in ready to be taught nothing substantial and even perhaps to be offended by the teaching and service. I expected to see nothing very Jewish save kippot and tallitot. I think in the back of my mind I was also expecting yoga mats and seance candles.

None of these preconceptions ended up being remotely true.

I entered the small but fully packed sanctuary before the Torah service had even begun, so I opened the siddur and found where they were praying and continued with them. After the Torah reading the rabbi stood up and gave his sermon, again on the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof.

His words were kind, gracious, teaching people about trusting in HaShem and being moral. Extending love to the unloveable and always turning the other cheek. He was also incredibly knowledgeable about traditional forms of Judaism and he encouraged his congregants to embrace deeper observance as they were able. When speaking of the recent tragedy of the murder of the Palestinian child in Israel, he encouraged everyone not to come to radical conclusions as to whether or not there should be a two-state solution, rather, he called for his congregants to speak words of love and comfort to the Palestinians, and to call our fanatical Jewish brothers who committed this crime to justice, holiness, and repentance.

Perhaps this congregation differs from other Reconstructionist synagogues—I would not know—but I was inspired in my faith and in my practice by this synagogue. Yes, they change the liturgy slightly in some ways; yes, they have more liberal views in some regards, but they understand that the world needs to be reached with the message of Judaism, and they understand that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.

While I may differ with some aspects of the more liberal Judaisms, I was deeply touched by the sincerity and spiritual depth of these congregations. My Messianic Jewish faith was strengthened that Shabbat. I love it when my preconceived ideas are proven 100% wrong.

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About the Author: Jordan Levy is a staff writer for First Fruits of Zion and Vine of David where she also serves by translating from Hebrew, French, and Italian into English. She is dedicated to strengthening her community and providing linguistic and theological teaching. More articles by Jordan Levy

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