My hospital got its docs a new device called a Dragon Dictation System where I can speak into a microphone and mostly correct text appears. It is modified for the reality of having learned spoken English in the Bronx. It has two options for text, one general English and the default of an Endocrinology vocabulary as nearly all its use has been to dictate patient consultations. I tried dictating a more general article once, ended up typing it myself, but this week took another shot at something I've been meaning to prepare into an article called "The Places I Like to Daven". It's mostly past tense, but for all my Beth Sodom and Aliyah Sound Bite quips of my contemporary shabbat morning options, there were and to a lesser extent are places that serve as prime destinations on a shabbos morning. Eventually as a youngster I got to like our shul's Junior Congregation, despised the teen experience, and would inconvenience myself to leave home early to get to that shul now 100+ miles away if possible when passing through the area. WashU and Penn Hillel could expect my presence most shabbos mornings. Beth El Quincy, z"l, for my final year of residency. Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore once a quarter, again at a little personal inconvenience and needing some advance planning.
I tried to tease out common themes. Like the Rabbi? For sure at the adult synagogues but the Hillel experiences had no Rabbi. Friendly congregants? After multiple visits to Beth Tfiloh the total number of people who have come over to me sitting by myself and chatting with me is ONE, their assistant Rabbi who serves as Torah reader. Personal participation? I've been a very active Bimah participant by default at my current shul and the one before it, neither of which makes my must be there list while often serving as the destination of my many verbal harpoons.
After pondering the Why as I dictate the Where, the common thread seems to be the level of respect that I have for the composite experience and the people that I am with. The JCC of Spring Valley, my Bar Mitzvah congregation, seemed bimodal. It distilled to how I was treated. Contemptuously by the teen director who played favorites, inconsistently by the Rabbi who presided over my Bar Mitzvah, to be followed by a Rabbi of my later high school years who endeared himself, not only to me, but forty years later when high school classmates post photos of their wedding, his picture appears with a note of his kindness and sometimes his professional competence. Services were done expertly. Those in attendance were were more my mother's friends than mine, but as a an adult visitor who made time to stop there while in transit from the Delaware Valley to New England these people gained my respect for their ongoing dedication even as their congregation was aging and eventually failing.
Hillel I was more a part of. People were happy to have me there whether they needed another tuchis for a minyan or not. There were interactions about exams. My first Kaddish obligation was fulfilled there. It was the custom that mourners should not stand alone, a custom exported by me to subsequent places. Not having a Rabbi, the Hillels brought out the best in what Jewishly committed students could do. There were no fights over Mechitza, just a recognition that the Orthodox needed one and we would set our own druthers aside to enable their worship. Somebody had to prepare Torah reading, even if an Organic Chemistry test loomed in the near future. People rose to the occasions. I'm very respectful of that to this day.
I only lived in Quincy for one year, my final year of residency. The town at the time had a kosher butcher which folded a few months after we arrived. My first experience at Beth El occurred for the Holy Days which might have been my last as the Rabbi rambled and the crowded sanctuary could have used better climate control. But while I spent the summer at an arduous hospital assignment, my wife attended shul, assuring me that the spectacle of Rosh Hashana did not occur on shabbat. As my medical assignments got a little more tame, I started going with her. The experience was the closest I've ever had to a Hillel duplication in a Conservative synagogue. Personable, knowledgeablle, interactive Rabbi. Cantor davened and read Torah expertly without the flourishes of a Cantorial institute alumnus, having acquired his skill in Europe. Not a lot of congregants but enough, ranging from Harvard professors to younger people who had just escaped the Iranian Revolution but still had family left behind. The role of women was in transition then but both my wife and I got invitations to be among the haftarah readers. Kiddush was mingling and chat time, something never duplicated for me since. Then mostly home and rest afterwards. If they had macher swoops I was unaware of them. I know they had a benefactor, an owner of a small regional home improvement chain. I never met him and never sensed I was being manipulated in any way.
So those are the basic models, diverse but with a common theme of being among people who I basically admire. Sounds like something fairly easy to duplicate or at least aspire to, though strangely elusive.