Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Eight months and eight days: pro- (temple) choice

We didn't put much thought into choosing a temple, which is surprising, given the marathon we put ourselves through to find an elementary school. No, we did not apply to multiple temples, did not take guided tours of them, did not send our Jawa to them for a supervised play date, did not submit to a formal interview.

It's not like there weren't several to choose from. Though I am constantly flummoxed at my religion's recent inability to form geographic communities (where is the "Jewish neighborhood" in San Francisco? You know, the one with a kosher deli on each corner?), our special city boasts several shuls, to serve all manner of Jew.

If we'd taken the time, we might have considered Temple Beth Sholom, which shares a name with the temple at which I was Bar Mitzvahed. Temple Beth Sholom, located in the Inner Richmond (across town), just completed a controversial new sanctuary that looks like a skatepark half-pipe.

No chance we were going to join there, even if we'd been aware of its existence before we committed. It's a conservative synagogue, meant for Jews a little more dialed into the program than us. Wait. I mean, than me. Sandra Bullock, you may have guessed, is not a chosen person. Your first clue should have been the fact that she can disassemble a bathroom while wearing her pjs and slippers.

Not a Jew.

We recently attended a Bat Mitzvah at Beth Sholom, and liked it. We liked the old guys who stand around and randomly chant in Hebrew. But we also noticed that, for the family of the Bat Mitzvah girl, Temple Beth Sholom was the epicenter of their social life. I've barely made it through eight years of non-religious gatherings of my people without turning on them all. Beth Sholom was out.

We could have joined Sha'har Azav, the gay temple. Yes, Judaism, at least in San Francisco, is completely compatible with the LGBT community. Our own temple, in fact, has a gay rabbi, so we sort of skipped over the part of the Jawa's Torah portion where it talked about how a woman who dresses as a man is an abomination. There is no reason for us not considering Sh'har Azav, other than the fact that we didn't consider any other temples.

Weekly, it seems, I discover a new temple. The night before Josh K.'s Bar Mitvah, while driving around looking for a parking spot, I saw a small place I'd never seen before, near Clement Street, also in the Inner Richmond. Josh K. and the Jawa knew all about it. I swear. Sometimes it's like I crashed a party I wasn't invited to.

Only once was I swayed. Actually, I should say that only once did I show interest in any particular congregation, given that our eventual choice, Temple Emanu el, was a foregone conclusions the whole time.

We got an invitation from Jenny From the Block's mother-in-law, the irrepressible Bev, to attend a dinner at Temple Ner Tamid. It was for one of the holidays. I can't remember which one.

Ner Tamid is this little, dying temple out in the Sunset District. Our friend Mr. San Francisco went there as a child. He is no longer a congregation member, yet strangely enough, spent this entire evening explaining to me this plan he has to "save" the congregation.

As we sat there, soaking in the desperation of this tight-knit but badly aging community, I thought to myself, "Now HERE'S a chance to do something. We can join Emanu El and be one of thousands. Or we could join here and help bring it back to its feet."

I came home all fired up. Sandra Bullock put a quick end to that fantasy. "All of the Jawa's friends belong to Emanu El," she said, flatly.

I thought of Ner Tamid as the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of synagogues, and sometimes I still regret not putting my foot down on that one. Were I an old-school, traditional Jewish guy, I would have. But I'm not.

So instead, we joined Temple Emanu el, the General Motors of temples. For our Bar Mitzvah, we chose from Emanu el's roster of six rabbis, and signed up for a full slate of classes. For our Jawa, there would be no simple memorizing of a cassette tape. His Bar Mitzvah training would include multiple classes -- one to teach all of us how to attend services; one in which we would do a close study of the Torah. In one, which I'll get to later, we sat rigidly, not daring to speak out of turn, move or request a trip to the bathroom, while the charismatic scholar-in-residence rabbi listened to the glorious sound of his own voice.

We were not alone in any of these classes. In each, we knew at least half of the other families. This is how it goes when you attend a Jewish day school and join the most popular temple.

And if we (actually, I) sacrified the opportunity to dive into something headfirst and try to make a difference, well, there's nothing stopping me from diving into Emanu el except my own laziness and distaste for large-scale politics. It would have been different. Really.

On the up side, we are part of this powerful temple. It's one less eccentricity to explain to people. You tell them you belong to Emanu el, they know what you're talking about. It's been here in San Francisco since the Gold Rush, I think.

And it's reformed, which is nice, since I'm still not entirely convinced about this religion thing. You've got to love reformed Jews. You tell a rabbi that you just don't believe in all this stuff, he says, "Good! Good!" because he assumes it's a great starting point for a discussion.

Come our Bar Mitzvah day, in eight months and eight days, I am positive that we will be glad we chose Temple Emanu El as our congregation. Sometimes the choices you make without thinking are the ones that work out fine.

1 comment:

Sir Loungealot said...

Did you know that the Temple Beth Shalom is the first temple ever in Orange County? It was originally located in downtown S.A. but moved to the unicorporated part of the county in the early 60's. It's still on the corner of Fairhaven and Tustin. I drove by it today thinking I should have been invited to that Bar Mitzvah 32 years ago.