by Eliana Katz
I am a proud Orthodox Jewish woman. As my family has moved a number of times, I was raised in a number of different Orthodox communities: Los Angeles, Rochester, and Fort Lauderdale. There is a certain comforting fluency to these communities and their synagogues. I know that no matter where I am in the world I will be able to follow the order of every service, sing along with every melody, and tune in to each Rabbi’s sermon with the same level of clarity.
But with familiarity comes the risk of redundancy. If I’m being what my husband calls ‘Beit T’Shuvah honest,’ as someone who has been going to services nearly ever Shabbat of my life, I’ve grown a bit tired. Then again, perhaps it’s simply complacency, but there is little that has been able to ruffle my spiritual feathers in quite some time. Since I took up my post at Beit T’Shuvah, I have been promising myself to ‘try’ the acclaimed Friday night services. As with all things complexly Orthodox, it had to be weather, time, and circumstances permitting, as my husband and I would have to walk the 3 miles home. Having been in Beit T’Shuvah 9 months, maybe I had to wait out the ‘prenatal’ term before I could fully appreciate what I was about to behold.
I know for many of you, I will be describing something you take part in every week, but I will attempt to describe my experience of Beit T’Shuvah services with the same awe and wonder of someone who is experiencing them for the first time. My husband and I took a seat next to one another, and held hands. This was a special treat, as we are used to a Mechitzah—a divider that separates men from women. We then braced ourselves for what would be an otherworldly experience. I have to first state my amazement of Cantor Rachel, the band, and the choir. I believe the unique brand of Beit T’Shuvah music takes the services to a haunting, marrow-penetrating place I’ve never quite been before. Beyond that, there are three things in competition for my favorite part of the evening: Gratitude/T’Shuvah, Dancing to Lecha Dodi, and the Birthday Speeches.
Gratitude was introduced to the congregation on the heels of a reading about T’Shuvah. Congregation members were given the opportunity to openly seek amends or give gratitude for their week in front of the community. Religiousity aside, all Jews rely on at least one day, Yom Kippur, to wipe their sinful slates clean. As an Orthodox Jew I know that in the daily prayers, we have the opportunity to ask G-d for forgiveness 3 separate times with the reciting of the Amida- the Silent Prayer. But I’ve already cautioned about the habitual becoming rote. People expressing their remorse and receiving forgiveness in front of a room full of people, THAT is real T’Shuvah. Reading the daily prayer is just the reminder, but in Beit T’Shuvah services, people are invited to do what the Rabbi calls the ‘Next Right Thing.’ I hope for the courage and boldness to make T’Shuvah openly in my life on a weekly basis.
Lecha Dodi is the prayer that brings in the Shabbat. It welcomes in the Shabbat Kallah, the Sabbath bride. A recent kallah myself, I can appreciate the joy of being literally danced to my Chuppah. That is what the Beit T’Shuvah congregants do- they get up off their seats and welcome in the Sabbath with stomping feet and snapping fingers. I have a friend that once said, Lecha Dodi truly welcomes the Angels, but only if they feel invited. I now know the Angels RSVP ‘yes’ to Beit T’Shuvah on a Friday night!
And lastly, my husband and I had the distinct pleasure of choosing a weekend with 7 sober birthdays. From just a tender year to a seasoned six, each person got up and expressed gratitude to the community, their counselors, their friends, their spiritual guides, and encouraged fresh residents in the program to continue to put one foot in front of the other. They each ended their speeches with the simple yet profound, ‘Thank you for my life.” Through tears and even laughter, I don’t think I can aptly express to you the articulation and eloquence with which these individuals relay their hearts. It is the reason why I have said, since I’ve come here, myself a ‘normie,’ that EVERYONE can benefit from recovery. I’ve come to feel that perhaps it is the missing link in the evolution of the complete man.
The last unique component, which I guarantee you will find at no other synagogue, is when the new residents are welcomed and embraced by the community on the pulpit each week. With ‘Baruch Habbah B’Shem Hashem,’ [Blessed is he who walks in the name of G-d] they are shown that they are not just a number in a clinical facility, but a human being with a soul that is now a part of something much greater than itself. These residents are told by the congregants- yelled at even!- through their detoxing fog, “HOLD ON!”
A newly grateful member of the community, I too plan to do just that.