In Rebuttal: Am I missing something about organized religion?

My Jewish congregations have enriched countless lives

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I would like to share my own rather different experiences from those described in two recent op-ed pieces that appeared in the Post-Gazette: the Nov. 22 Saturday Diary, “The day we didn’t go to synagogue” by Laura Malt Schneiderman, and the Dec. 14 First Person column, “Losing my congregation” by Ronna L. Edelstein.

Ms. Schneiderman writes an article that appears to deal with fate, what some Jews may refer as “bashert” (destiny). As a child, she and her siblings disliked attending services so much that one particular time they tarried until it was too late to attend. They later heard about a shooter who killed a father of three and injured two others at their synagogue that day. She ends with, “All I know is that I’m thankful I wasn’t there.”

I believe writing about fate, or bashert, is fair game, possibly even cathartic for the author, but almost half the article was dedicated to her terrible memories of being forced to attend synagogue. She uses this as the premise for why she was late in getting up that day.

Ms. Schneiderman recalls the “droning rabbi and cantor,” the congregation sounding like “dying sheep,” and the “unintelligible sermon” and ends her rant by allowing that “the only good part about services was the reception afterward … ”

Maybe all this was meant to be humorous, but I just didn’t get it. I read this as someone who has attended services his entire life and didn’t see any of these terrible atrocities perpetrated against unknowing, attending congregants. Have I been missing something all these years?

Of course! We have stopped going to movies after the Colorado shooting, and we surely don’t send our children to school any longer since Columbine and Sandy Hook. I assume the next natural step is to stop attending organized services because of what might occur. Our congregants at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills never stopped attending after Richard Baumhammers shot up our lobby during his murderous shooting spree when he killed five innocent people.

Then, if it wasn’t bad enough to create a horrible impression of attending synagogue as a child, along comes Ms. Edelstein. As a rabbi’s wife, she gives her impression of synagogue life and in her words “ … began my descent into the underbelly of organized religion.”

She describes the slings and arrows aimed at her and her husband — about their clothes, the too-long or too-short or too-shallow sermon, the insufficient or overly complimentary eulogy — by congregants who had just been in “prayerful devotion.” She agrees with her great-grandmother who said, “God can hear me just as fine when I iron as when I sit in shul.” Ms. Edelstein argues throughout that praying at home is perhaps better than attending and being either badgered or judged.

Again, what am I missing? I remember walking to and from shul every Saturday morning, holding my parents’ hands and singing songs all the way. We sat with my uncle near the front where we could see the rabbi and the cantor chanting the service. Oh, what a voice Cantor Brummer had!

A few rows away sat another cousin who everyone lovingly called the candy man since he gave candy out to all the children. At Poale Zedeck, I sang in the choir and became a Bar Mitzvah. I fondly recall being with my immediate family as well as my cousins and aunt and uncle every week. This was about family.

My wife and I became extremely active at Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill. I recall the rabbi’s inspiring sermons and spiritually moving chants from Cantor Moshe Taube. Our children studied, participated in services and became bar and bat mitzvah. They played leadership roles at Emma Kaufmann Camp. We are still very active in synagogue organizations locally and nationally. Our lifelong friends are those we met through the synagogue.

Rest assured, the memories of these two authors are not duplicated at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. Our rabbi, Alex Greenbaum, is engaging, humorous, thought-provoking and accessible. He knows all the kids and all the kids adore him. His wife, Rabbi Amy, directs our religious school. Her creative programming entitled “Hands-on Judaism” has invigorated our children and their parents as well. The kids enjoy music, nature, cooking and crafts that connect them with their studies. The congregation enjoys creative programming around services as well as social and community projects.

Whether praying at a synagogue, church, temple or mosque, the concept of praying together is the same. We are part of a community. We belong. We join groups where we share similar interests.

A house of worship is where we get our daily

weekly fill of “feel good” surrounded by those all there for the same reason, to belong and feel part of something bigger than us. If you want your house of worship to be there for you and your children whenever you want it or need it, then you must support it.

If you want to see the “underbelly,” it’s there to see. But, if you choose to feel the wonderment of belonging to a community, one that’s accepting and enriching, it’s also there waiting for you. Organized religion is about sharing, caring, camaraderie and building community. Join, become active and create your own positive memories to see what you’ve been missing.

Steve Hecht is executive director of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills and a past executive vice president of Beth Shalom Congregation. He also serves on the board of the North American Association of Synagogue Executives and lives in Squirrel Hill. The views expressed here are personal and not meant to represent those of any institution with which Mr. Hecht is affiliated.

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