The Return

Over the past 18 months, I spent less time in synagogue than at any point since I started going to shul regularly in the fall of 1993.

Until September 14, I was going through my Orthodox conversion to Judaism and I had so much fear that something would go wrong, I stayed away from shul to narrow my chances of disaster.

Before Rosh Hashanah, I finished the process. But I haven’t hurried back to shul.

I’ve had several reasons for this:

* Over the past year, I’ve dated women who weren’t into Orthodox Judaism. I couldn’t shlep them along to shul and I didn’t want to leave them behind. When given the choice between a hot body in the hovel and an invisible God at shul, I frequently chose to stay home.

* Getting booted from five shuls for my controversial writing took a toll on my psyche. Stepping into shul became scary. It didn’t feel like a safe place. To avoid anything going wrong with anybody, I distanced myself. I didn’t open up to many people. I didn’t engage deeply. I didn’t form many bonds.

* When forced to choose between my writing and my shul, I’ve always chosen my writing. By maintaining a fierce commitment to my blog, I’ve let other things come in second, such as a harmonious relationship with a shul.

* My best friend over the past two years got kicked out of the RCC conversion program last fall and has since moved in with a shaygetz and abandoned Judaism. I miss our friendship. It was one of the big reasons I went to shul.

* Since January, 2009, I’ve been meeting most of my communal and spiritual needs through the daily practice of yoga. I have a ton of friends at yoga. Nobody treats me like an unclean thing. I feel happy at yoga. I feel calm. I feel loving. I feel like I leave my cynical hateful side outside. Shul used to do that for me. It was a place I cleansed and dropped my defenses and became my best self. In 2009, I was most consistently my best self in yoga.

* Since January, 2009, I’ve been in Alexander Technique teacher training. Along with the yoga, this has taken most of my available energy. Too often when Shabbat rolls around, I’m exhausted and don’t want to leave the hovel.

It used to be that I went to shul because I loved the singing (the prayers) and I loved the rabbi and I loved my friends and I loved the learning and I loved the socializing. It was the high point of my week. Some stuff happened and it all went sour for me.

I found myself stuck at shuls where at least one of the above was missing. Perhaps the singing sucked. Perhaps the rabbi sucked. Perhaps I had no friends. And I hated myself and I wondered where did it all go wrong? Shul was my favorite time. I looked forward to it all week. Shul aka Stephen S. Wise temple had it all — peppy tunes, eloquent tomes, groovy chicks, inspiring rabbis, Dennis Prager. The works.

It all started going terribly wrong in early 1998 when I fell out with Prager and lost all the friends we had in common.

So now I’m going back to shul. I’m going to different shuls. And I walk in and I don’t know anyone. It’s weird. I feel like I’m back in 1993 and I’m starting my Jewish journey all over again.

I suffer from anxiety in shul. I fear connecting with people. What if they hate because of my blog? What if they just hate me?

I feel like I napalmed my first 16 years in Judaism. I had to destroy the village to save it.

Hmm. I fear that shul became a mirror I didn’t want to look in anymore.

Now I’m starting over. I shlep along a Jewish book to protect me. If I get bored, if I fear connecting with others, I’ll just open it up and start reading.

It’s hard acclimatizing myself to three hours of davening on a Shabbos morning. Just those enormous blocks of time the good Orthodox Jew spends in shul, it’s daunting. The repetitive prayers. The cliches from the bima.

Including kiddish, I lasted more than three hours this morning. Then my anxiety won out and I fled.

I went back for mincha-maariv (afternoon and evening prayers). I’m training myself to be a good Jew. I feel like my time in shul recalibrates my system so that I am more in tune with what God and Torah want from me.

It’s time to love again.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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