Finding Temple Sinai
I lived nearly 30 years in New Zealand without knowing the address of a temple. I was an absentee sort of Jew, lacking any practice from which to lapse. I worked eighteen years in war zones, including nine years in Muslim societies, and I began to study Judaism while working in Gaza. Returning to New Zealand in 2015, I stepped gingerly into the first temple that turned up on a Google search: Temple Sinai, Wellington.
People greeted me as they greeted each other. Someone sat near me, in case I couldn’t follow the service in Hebrew. I remember sitting up very straight: these people owned their Shabbat service. They compiled and reflected its content in our present world. On my second visit, the spiritual director sat with me. Each week the care, the relevance and the voices of communal prayer elevated me.
“The amazing thing about this temple,” I marvelled to my friends, “is its welcome. After years of studying alone, I see the lived, social Judaism I have read abou
Raised Orthodox, I had my first Aliyah at the age of 55. When they invited me to perform the hagba, the honour of lifting and displaying the Torah, I protested, “But I can’t touch it. I’m a woman!”
“Actually, you can,” the fellow grinned. “It’s yours.”
Mine? I stared – at him, at the Torah. He unrolled it for me, like an accessible thing. I had never looked at a Torah closely, considered it as an artisan work, a handmade artefact with human irregularities.
Rather than recoiling from my work in Gaza, the temple held a workshop to hear about it (as did the Orthodox temple). Few of those present shared my politics, but Jews have never learned by being agreed with. Belonging is integral to Judaism; agreement is not. The Israel-Palestine conflict was deeply divisive, and moreso when it was told from behind the walls of Gaza. Yet this community responded by uniting – not fragmenting – around our Judaism. It respected dissent as a foundational Jewish value, and came together in prayer.
As with the Torah, the community began to be mine.
I have heard estimates that New Zealand has around 7000 Jews, perhaps 1200 in Wellington. North American cities house a panoply of temples. Each one offers the possibility of being surrounded by like-minded Jews. Temple Sinai has, instead, the intentional tolerance of a Jewish village. We know that we will entertain, argue, learn from, roll our eyes at, grieve and pray with the same small group of un-like-minded Jews for a long time.
Given my politics, I confront the limits of this tolerance, even as I appreciate its wisdom. I look around the room and know that those with whom I disagree are, like me, living through their understanding of our religion.
As I studied for my Bat Mitzvah, one temple member coached me through the tropes, and another worked with me to plan the day around the theme of ‘service in the cause of peace’. I studied my birth parsha with our spiritual director. Upon leaving my work in conflict-affected communities, I had resolved to learn a language and a musical instrument. I found them in the language of Torah and the music of the laws. The temple acquired one more name on its rosters of Torah readers and Chazzanim, one more choir member, and I began to acquire a Jewish practice.
Such experiences inform the discussion of employing a Rabbi. For some of us, lay-led services are a vital chamber of the temple’s beating heart. They require our study and weekly commitment. If a Rabbi and Cantor did the work, we might lean back a little further in our seats and wait to be told what it means. Lacking that, we learn from every visiting Rabbi and Cantor, we study, and we learn from those who have studied for years and decades longer.
“The amazing thing about this temple,” I tell my friends, “is that no one is on autopilot.”
Temple Sinai reflects New Zealand’s high proportion of immigrants (28.2%, OECD Factbook 2016). When my mother died in Canada, the spiritual director drove me to the airport. She gave me a booklet of reflections to read en route, while my mother was being buried. After I returned to New Zealand, Temple Sinai held a memorial for her. I hesitated over that. Who would want to come out on a winter evening, to hear about a 97-year-old stranger?
One member chided me, “We are your temple family. We want to know about you.”
Telling my mother’s stories aloud, felt as specific as the moment when we name our relatives for yahrtzeit: I remember this person, I keep them present with me.
Eighteen months after I wandered in, I spent last Sunday morning at a long table with other lay service leaders, aged fourteen to seventy. We talked about the pace and arc of each service as an experience of prayer. We googled to discover that ‘gabbai’ was the Aramaic word for tax collector, and we reminded each other that we share the responsibility to welcome each stranger.
Mine is one story. A remarkable number of (non-founding) members have a similar story of the welcome and embrace that drew them into the Temple Sinai family. In aggregate, the stories explain why Temple Sinai is growing steadily, with a vibrant youth presence. Its signature is its breadth; its ability to nest such diversity of achievements, losses, dreams and politics within one unassuming house of prayer. What a gift my temple is, in polarizing times.