Going back to shul

Going back to shul

After 20 months away, my husband and I went back to shul.

Until covid, we went regularly, every Shabbat for probably at least 25 years (although admittedly not to daily minyan).

Everyone who goes to Shabbat services religiously (I know, I know) does it for her own specific if not necessarily clearly defined reasons. I go, I realized during these long 20 months, to see my friends, to be surrounded by my community, to be enveloped by the synagogue’s arabesques, its dark rich colors and restrained gilt and old stained glass and rose windows, and to delight in its glorious, soul-filling, soul-stirring music.

I surprise precisely no one by noting that all of those wonders have been missing during these long pandemic months.

My synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, has streamed and Zoomed its services through the pandemic. Many people have gotten great solace from watching their communities’ streamed services; others of us, including me, have not. Television shul seems just too off-putting. And of course many shuls — every Orthodox shul and some Conservative ones as well – never did stream Shabbat services. Halacha made that an unacceptable non-option.

Shuls have reopened a different times, making complex calculations based on their own unique variables, including their internal and external geography, their congregants’ ages, their desire to be back, their discomfort with what seemed to be unwise risks, local disease rates and health department regulations.

My shul reopened over the summer; to go in you had to sign up in advance, carry a hard-copy proof of vaccination, wear an approved mask, and sit far apart from everyone except your own immediate household; over the holidays, a PCR test within 72 hours was necessary as well. By now, it’s eased to the point where you can wear your own pretty mask and the seats, from what I’ve been told, have been inching closer to each other. (Propelled by people, that is.)

When we decided to go back, I realized that I did not want to at all. I wasn’t afraid of disease – exactly how vaxxed can a person be? I’m that vaxxed, and so is everyone else, and we’re doing well in the metropolitan area — but I did fear alienation.

When you’ve been away that long, when the habit of going, no matter of what, has been broken, when you know that you’ll be able to see only the top halves of the faces you’ve missed for so long, going back is hard.

I just didn’t want to.

But I also knew that if I were to give in to the desire to stay home, it would just get harder.

So I went, and it was wonderful.

I hadn’t expected that rush of excitement, and even more of love. Of feeling at home, of being part of something. Of seeing people I had missed desperately. Of being able to hug them. Of being able to smile at them and knowing that even though my mouth was masked the smile reached my eyes, and they were uncovered. Of hearing the music. Of being surrounded by the voices. Of seeing the rose window.

This isn’t over yet. Not everyone is vaccinated, and we keep being warned that delta is a wily (if mindless) enemy, and the virus still lurks and pounces.

But it’s getting so much better, and jolts of joy are restorative.

So as we approach the darkest time of the year —this is a particularly dark year — and the holiday of light, we hope that all of our readers can experience a lightening bolt of pure sparkling joy.