I don’t go to synagogue very often. The last time was almost a year ago, and I’d been away so long I didn’t realize they’d moved the time back half an hour, so when my girl-friend (who had never been to synagogue before) and I showed up, they were just getting underway.
This is not ideal because a synagogue service lasts three hours, and the thing to do is show up about 45 minutes late, after the opening prayers but in time for the Torah readings and the rabbi’s sermon. Only the 100-year-old men show up right at the start, and of course the officiating officers: the rabbi, the cantor, and in this case another official, a sexton, a beadle – I don’t know what to call him – gabbai and shamash are possible Hebrew names.
He greeted us at the door and sounded happier to see me than I’d expected, it turned out because I was the tenth man needed for “minyan,” or quorum, the minimum number required to conduct a full service. This was only the second time in my life that I’d been pressed into service this way because usually I show up late enough that a minyan has already been formed.
So at first there were very few of us at the service, and I felt uncomfortable, worried I might be called on to do something I didn’t know how to do, but making up the minyan doesn’t require anything but your presence, so that was all right, and eventually others who knew about the later start showed up and I could feel more comfortably inconspicuous.
And it was a pleasant experience overall. I always enjoy the mysterious prayers and chants, and the sermon is sometimes interesting; there’s ritual and community and even food at the end and some pleasant conversation with members of the congregation.
My girl-friend and I said we should go back, but we haven’t, perhaps for a number of reasons. In my search for ritual, community, and spiritual sustenance I have other outlets. I keep signing up for Continuing Studies courses, for one thing, and even courses for credit. But perhaps more important, I attend Student Council meetings. Every two or three weeks I am there with my real community, my real congregation, and I am there in an official capacity as Clerk of Council. I walk around holding the Code of Procedure, looking a bit perhaps like the sexton-gabbai holding his prayer book and ushering people in. Not that I usher people in, but I walk around whispering advice, or I sit in my designated place taking notes for the minutes. Oh, and I help establish the numbers for quorum, the Council’s minyan. And when called on, or even when not, I offer information about the rules.
I am not uncomfortable there; quite the contrary. It’s like a second home. I’ve been doing it for years and I know the rituals, the order of service. In this case the food comes at the beginning, and there are lots of people who show up on time and then leave early, the opposite of how it is in the synagogue.
Then the Speaker calls the meeting to order, there are introductions, I get to introduce myself as the Clerk. There are presentations and questions, and then the Approval of the Minutes (my Minutes among others), then the debate on motions. No sermons (well, not usually). Sometimes elections to committees, and then the motion to adjourn.
No one says Good Shabbes afterwards, but groups may gather for post-mortems or libations. I may stay for some post-mortems but not for the libations. It’s late at night by the time we finish; often the meetings are even longer than synagogue services, and I am tired at the end, and yet it feels comforting. There is no God, unless you count Brigadier General Robert (inventor of Robert’s Rules), but it is my synagogue.