Monday, June 21, 2010

Exiled to a place of Torah?

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, Mishna 18: "Rabbi Nehorai said: Exile yourself to a place of Torah and do not say it will come after you or that your colleagues will preserve it for you. 'And do not rely on your own understanding' (Proverbs 3:5)."

One of my oldest and dearest friends just moved, and she and her husband chose a specific New York City neighborhood because they wanted to affiliate with a left-leaning Modern Orthodox synagogue. Like me, she's been a Conservative Jew all her life and is (was?) a female tallit-wearer. Why the change?

The answer, in a word (or two), is hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), the practice of routinely inviting people to one’s home on Sabbath and holidays.

My friend had fond memories of her, her ex-husband, and their children having been welcomed into people’s homes when they lived in an Orthodox community. And she was well aware that that welcome had disappeared when she’d moved to a much more mixed neighborhood and joined a Conservative synagogue, where she, and, later, her current husband (a widower who, like her, has adult children), rarely received invitations from other members of their synagogue. They felt that, now that they’re both empty-nesters and not getting any younger, they needed a community in which they could expect to have a social life as a part of their religious life.

We davven (pray) in a synagogue where people rarely invite one another, and the neighborhood where I prefer to pray is over an hour away. Would we have a better social life on Sabbath if we lived there (assuming that we could afford to do so, which we can’t), or is the tradition of hachnasat orchim simply not such a central observance among Conservative Jews?

I’ll be keeping an eye on my old friend to see whether she and her husband find a warm welcome in their new Jewish community, or whether it’s just going to be a better place for them to live in general. Assuming that we can afford to move there, it might be worth learning to keep my big mouth shut if we could get, in return, roughly the same number of mishloach manot packages that we gave out. I’m tired of living a little-house-on-the-prairie life.


Evening update: My husband's reaction is that I'd better be sure that I'm prepared to make such a radical change, because he doesn't want to hear me complaining for the next 20 years about not being able to have an aliyah. He has a point. I'll have to give this a lot of thought, and decide whether my priority is to have a more active religious social life--especially since, being seven years younger than my husband, I'm likely to outlive him--or to have a religious life that's more inclusive of women.


Blogger Miami Al said...

I think you overestimate how much you need to keep your mouth shut.

The real world is not a blog. The behaviors on here are not normal.

Are their obnoxious judgmental people? Of course. Do you want to be friends with those people? Of course not. You wouldn't want to be friends with those people now, why would being a part of an Orthodox synagogue affect that?

Mon Jun 21, 10:52:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could move somewhere where there is both a right-wing yet egal C synagogue and a liberal MO synagogue.
You can go to the C shul on weekdays and get an aliyah and go the O shul on Shabbos and get invites by people who keep Shabbat and kosher.
My experience from when I was Conservative, most C Jews, even those that care about Shabbat, do not have Shabbat or Yom Tov guests, especially not for lunch. And some of those that did invite me either didn't keep totally kosher or cooked on Shabbat, which made accepting invites difficult.

Tue Jun 22, 02:55:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

My girlfriend tells me that whether or not one considers the Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood to be within walking distance depends on how far you want to walk. That may get to be an issue even on weekdays, as I've just finished 11 months of commuting to an egalitarian Conservative minyan to say kaddish for my mother and would prefer not to repeat the experience for my father, when the time comes. :( I'll have to see for myself just how long the walk is from our friends' new apartment. This could be a major consideration, given that my husband and I are both in our 60s. If we move, we probably won't move again, so we need a place where we can still get where we want to go, preferably on foot, when we're in our 80s.

Tue Jun 22, 05:05:00 PM 2010  
Blogger SJ said...

Shira, you are invited to post at should you feel inclined.

Tue Jun 22, 09:22:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Bob said...

I am a Conservative Jew who keeps shabat. I have to say that I hate shabat lunch invitations. I hate having people over and I hate being had over. On shabat afternoon I want to rest and recreate with my children. I want a nap and I want playtime and maybe to look over the parsha for the following week. I don't want to eat four or five courses while sitting up at a meal that can, and too often does, last hours and hours. As a general matter the table is crowded, the chairs are uncomfortable, the people not necessarily pleasant, and the food too heavy. I don't want to be trapped talking to whatever stranger is seated next to me for hours at a time. I don't want to sing song after song that sets bible verses or medieval puns to mediocre and repetitive melodies. I have no desire to sing about the quails and the fish and the barburim. And I particularly don't want to do any of these things because I have already been at shul all morning long.

I don't like shabat dinner invitations either. When shabat comes in I am tired. I have rushed home from work and cleaned my house and put a nice meal on the table. I want to enjoy it with my family where I don't have to be on company manners. I don't want to have to walk home late at night when supper is over. If it's my own house, I don't want huge piles of dishes to keep me up late. I want to make a nice shabat, put my kids to bed, clean up quickly, and maybe relax a little before I turn in myself.

I understand that hachnassat orchim is praiseworthy, but it's no fun on shabat. Since it is one of those mitzvot "she-ayn lahem shiur," i.e., no matter how much you do, you can still do more - I choose to do very little.

Is this so blameworthy?

Wed Jun 23, 08:13:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Miami Al said...


We quickly learned to stop accepting invites from people who serve 5 hour meals. Generally, dinner/lunch is 2 hours or so, with nice food, nice company, and the kids getting to play. I think it's a regional difference, because the people serving 5 hour meals are the ex-NYers that have been here for < 1 year, after a while, they learn that nobody wants to eat a heavy 5 course meal.

I'm guessing part of it is that if you are with a Conservative Shomer Shabbat group, it's a VERY particular subset of people. In the Orthodox world, where Shomer Shabbat behavior in the norm, people have a more relaxed attitude. There are DEFINITELY people LIKE you are describing in the community, but they form their own little subgroup.

After a long week at work, few of us have the patience for 5 hour meals. The ones that do, recreate amongst themselves.

Thu Jun 24, 11:17:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

One of these days, I'll figure out what "barburim" are. :)

Bob, it's true that we get less of a Shabbos schluff (sleep, nap) when we have, or are, guests, but I enjoy it, even though I'm tired the next day.

" . . . if you are with a Conservative Shomer Shabbat group, it's a VERY particular subset of people."

That's true, from what I've seen. I don't I think I could ever count the number of non-clergy Shomer Shabbat Conservative Jews in our neighborhood on more than two hands, even when we first moved here over 25 years ago and the congregation was much bigger.

"In the Orthodox world, where Shomer Shabbat behavior in the norm, people have a more relaxed attitude . . . .

After a long week at work, few of us have the patience for 5 hour meals. The ones that do, recreate amongst themselves."

That sounds reasonable.

Thu Jun 24, 03:40:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

As I mentioned in passing in this post, the lack of a Shabbat social life is not the only thing that disappoints. There's also the lack of Seudot Purim (festive Purim meals) and the relative indifference of many Conservative Jews to eating in a Sukkah. I still remember the way the congregants looked at us as if we had three heads the first time we gave out mishloach manot, as if they'd never seen such a thing done before. I'm sick and tired of belonging to a shul in which simply being some remote semblence of observant means making a spectacle of ourselves.

Thu Jun 24, 06:40:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Bob said...

I stand by my comments and don't believe that it's a C or an NYC phenomenon. My dislike of invitations was cemented when I affiliated for two years with an MO shul far from the NYC metro area. And the friends here in NYC whose shabat invitations I duck are just as often affiliated O and davening in O shuls as in my own C one.

Two hour meals are better than five, I agree. Miami Al's hevre sounds nice in that regard. But the dirty dishes are still there at the end, and you still need to have company manners, and sing the silly songs, and walk home late in the dark. Sometimes there is a silly or trite dvar torah, too - that's usually at O shabat tables. C Jews are more aware of their own ignorance, in my experience, for which I bless them.

All I am saying is: shabat invitations are great for the kind of people who like shabat invitations. But it is not to the discredit of any community, Conservative or Orthodox, that shabat invitations are rare and don't float people's boats.

Shira's other complaints are interesting. The one time I do invite a lot of people is Sukkot, because we have a sukkah in Manhattan and that's a rarity. Demand in my C shul is high, from people we don't invite any other time of year.

On the other hand, although I of course make a seudat Purim, again I rarely invite. And I am a mishloach manot minimalist: two packages to two friends, usually people not in the shul for whom that's their only Purim. My understanding is that this is the preferred practice, and I divert the surplus $ to matanot la'evyonim.

Thu Jun 24, 07:34:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Miami Al said...


Sorry that you feel that way, to each their own. We clean up after the meal, put the dishes in the dishwasher, and after Shabbat we press go, life moves on. Washing dishes by hand, we save that horrible experience for Pesach.

We have small children, so we do our entertaining for lunch, not dinner. Droning meals, singing that people don't enjoy, etc... I think your problem is with the company you keep, not the Shabbat Seudah. :)

Thu Jun 24, 09:29:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

" . . . it is not to the discredit of any community, Conservative or Orthodox, that shabat invitations are rare and don't float people's boats."

Bob, maybe you're right and I shouldn't be so tough on my fellow and sister congregants.

Maybe *we* should become "a mishloach manot minimalist: two packages to two friends," Then, getting only two packages in return wouldn't be such a big deal.

It's a pity that no one in our shul uses the shul's sukkah, other than on the first night, when we have a shul dinner there, and the first two days, when we have a big kiddush, given that almost all of our members are apartement-dwellers. In our shul, many members will only observe a mitzvah if it's handed to them on a silver platter. :(

Fri Jun 25, 02:26:00 PM 2010  

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