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Shana Reicher

I wept. In a strange shul, with an unfamiliar crowd, I was uninhibited, free to access my emotions and come closer to my Maker

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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Last year, I stood for Kol Nidrei alongside women who barely knew how to hold a siddur. The shul was all stained glass and wood panels — huge and beautiful — and it was also the apex of modern orthodoxy.

So what were the three of us doing there, starkly out of place with traditional white tichels atop our sheitels, where there was nary a wig in the crowd?

In the lead up to Selichos, advertisements spring up, featuring famous chazzanim and choral groups for a rousing davening. Growing up, we looked out for those ads and the first night of Selichos would hold a touch of adventure as we traipsed into synagogues worlds away from the chassidic shtiebel we were used to. But they offered a unique brand of inspiration, and there were always plenty of familiar faces among the dress hats.

The older (and wiser) members of our family had long since abandoned the practice in favor of davening with our regular congregation, but last year I was struck with Selichos fever. When a friend forwarded me an invite to a Choral Selichos, I didn’t think twice.

The Selichos was more beautiful than I ever remembered. The chazzan’s voice rose higher than the great arched ceiling, drawing us into silky notes that were not just harmonious — they were soul-stirring. Shielding my face with the Hebrew-English selichos I had been offered upon entrance, I wept. In a strange shul, with an unfamiliar crowd, I was uninhibited, free to access my emotions and come closer to my Maker.

Back in the car, faces streaked with smudgy makeup but glowing all the same, we looked at each other. Shevy said it for all of us. “We’re coming back here for Yom Kippur.”

Divorced not three weeks, Shevy was keen to avoid the shtiebel. She didn’t want the whispers, the looks, and the nebaching. Not on the day when she wanted to focus her all on the tefillos, and beg for new beginnings. That would be far easier in anonymity.

My other friend, Tova, and I were both happily married, but had our own reasons for wanting to keep a wide berth of the shtiebel and the people who knew us too well. What would our neighbor Chaya’le say if I broke down inside my machzor, she would assume the worst, chas v’shalom…

“How about Rosh Hashanah?” Tova threw out. In the darkness of the night, on a deserted highway, anything seemed possible, but practicality won out.

“Four meals. Our families. Don’t be ridiculous, Tov.”

“All right, all right. But Yom Kippur it is.”

And it was.

We arranged to stay at the home of an elderly couple Tova knew; they had gone to Israel for the chagim. They lived a half-hour car ride and a whole world away from our neighborhood. If guilt reared its niggling head, we quashed it with talk about being able to daven better there.

Tova and I left our husbands and sisters to hold down the fort and we thought Shevy would leave her kids with her mother. But an hour before shkiah she trundled up, four kids in tow.

Would we even get to daven?

Ever the trooper, Shevy was nonchalant — sure, the kids would daven too. So our party trotted to the synagogue, three yunger veibelech and four chassidic-looking kids.


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