It's hard for a distance learning / low-residency rabbinic program to involve field trips, but the liturgy class I'm taking this fall has managed it. Reb Sami tasked us with visiting three shuls apiece, and paying attention to a whole range of issues when we do. Matters of liturgy are, of course, high on the list -- what prayerbook is used? how is it used? who leads prayer, and how? But so are other, more practical considerations: is parking easy to find? Am I welcomed as a newcomer? Are the chairs or pews bolted down, or can they be moved? How does the sanctuary feel? Do people sit near one another? Do they pray by rote, or with heart?
We brainstormed 25 questions together on the first day of class, a common metric for evaluating our synagogue visits (though he asked us not to write down our responses until after Shabbat has passed.) If we can't find three synagogues, we can visit churches; these same questions apply to Christian modes of prayer, too. In a pinch, we can visit the congregation(s) where we ourselves regularly worship, though it can be hard to experience one's own congregational home through new eyes.
This weekend I made my first field trip, to a small congregation about forty-five minutes away from where I live. Maybe because I went in with our survey in mind, several things really struck me. The welcome, first of all; I was welcomed graciously and enthusiastically. This is the congregation with whom my congregation has recently partnered for festivals (we celebrated Shavuot together, and Simchat Torah), so I know a few people there. But even people I didn't know came to greet me when I first arrived, and made me feel at home.
The space made an impact on me, too. I'd been inside the shul before, but hadn't davened there in years. It's a small wooden building (like a little New England church, only Jewish) with frosted stained-glass windows and a velvet interior, all in reds and purples and blues. My own synagogue sanctuary could hardly be more dissimilar -- we have great plain windows that look out over the mountains; the textures of floor and chair are different; the space has a different feel. Despite these spatial and stylistic differences, I came away feeling a warm attachment to this congregation's sanctuary too, maybe because both places feel so clearly consecrated by the presence of loving community.
There were other things I really enjoyed: the chance to sing some of the melodies I know from other places which we don't use in my shul; the way a congregant led us through birchot ha-shachar; the Torah discussion which began by linking Gilgamesh and Enkidu with Jacob and Esau. (I meant to write something last week about how we're called, today, to integrate both the earthiness of Esau and the intellect of Jacob -- to own and cherish the yin and yang of those twins as they are manifest in each of us -- but at least I managed to say something about it at shul, even if I didn't blog substantively about it here.) Before Adon Olam, each of us introduced her/himself and spoke aloud one blessing from the previous week that we wanted to celebrate or remember; I like that.
And then, during the oneg Shabbat after services, I met another visitor to the congregation, a man from the Bay Area with whom I turn out to have mutual friends. He offered me a blessing for my vocation that left me sparkling. An unexpected extra taste of sweetness at the end of an already-excellent Shabbat morning.
I find that now I'm really looking forward to my two other field trips, too -- and to seeing how these dips into these other prayerful communities impact my involvement with my own. I'd love to see this meme spread across the religious blogosphere(s) -- be a respectful tourist in someone else's congregation for a morning, and then reflect on how the experience felt and how it might shape your sense of your usual practices and place as time goes by...