I was visiting New York City in the latter part of the High Holidays from my home in Nova Scotia and found myself there for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. I contacted several synagogues, and did a little internet research to see whether I could find one in which I might feel at home for these holiest days of our year and was delighted to receive a kind message advising that I would be most welcome to share Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur with a Manhattan congregation.
On Friday evening, Kol Nidre, I took the subway from my hotel to the hall where services were being held, the synagogue itself being rather small for High Holiday attendance. I was warmly welcomed by two women from the congregation and felt quite at home. The Chazzan’s chanting was utterly sublime, a great gift to any congregation. Her great prayerfulness and passion added much to the words.
I was pleased to see what seemed a substantial number of people attending, including young families, whose Judaism was obviously important enough to them to make the effort to share Kol Nidre with even small children. The rabbi's sermon was about our desire to be well-remembered, which resonated particularly with me, as the very subject had been much on my mind in recent weeks. He was a good speaker, and I found myself often in agreement with what he said.
During the sermon, though, a small boy in the congregation became a little fussy, as small boys sometimes do. His mother took him outside, soothed him, and came back in some minutes later. Unfortunately, he still wasn’t tremendously content, and at a particular point in the sermon (timed almost exactly to the moment when the rabbi spoke about what made people remember us), he was fussy again. The congregation, for the most part, seemed amused by this, and in sympathy with the parents. I didn’t notice that anybody was bothered – except for the rabbi.
Even from where I sat, I could see the looks he’d been darting at this young family (parents and 2 small sons). Apparently, the little boy’s fuss was an affront to the rabbi, and he left the pulpit to walk across the stage, and waggled his fingers at the family as if they were unwelcome guests at a party. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if…?” he said. There was no reply. Then, after an incredulous moment, the young mother said, disbelieving, “Are you… asking us to leave?” “Well,” said the rabbi. “I think we’d all be more comfortable if you took the children out.”
The hall was still. The young couple, mortified, humiliated, and certainly hurt by this stunningly inappropriate behaviour from a rabbi (of all people) on Kol Nidre (of all days) gathered their children and left. I sat in my seat, shocked. The rabbi returned to the pulpit and simply picked up his sermon where he’d left off. That was enough to shake me out of my inaction. I got up and left.
When I went outside the hall, the couple were there with their sons, both visibly upset. I approached them and said that although this wasn’t my synagogue – I was a visitor, after all – I felt that someone should apologise for their ill-treatment, and on this most holy day, of all days. I told them – truthfully – that this would not have happened in my synagogue. Children sometimes make noise. We all know this. In fact, I'm generally tremendously bothered by disruptive children in a synagogue, yet even I was not in the least annoyed by these children.
Far from feeling like the welcoming place I had expected, the rabbi’s action suddenly made it feel as if I had entered an exclusive enclave, meant for only a certain few, of a certain type. And clearly, not my type – because in that rabbi’s shoes, I would have applauded the efforts of this young family to inculcate some love of Judaism in their children, to teach them how very important it is for all Jews to come on these days. Everybody has a need to atone, and every Jew ought to be welcome at any synagogue to express prayers of atonement. That any rabbi would make this couple feel so unwelcome was wrong – I wonder if his own expressions on Yom Kippur addressed the events of Kol Nidre.
When I left the service on Friday night, I headed back for the subway, where I cried all the way back to West 40th Street. I got to the hotel room I was sharing with friends, and when I began to tell them what had happened, I got upset all over again. I'm still upset. And I'm angry. I feel powerless, because there's so little I could do on that night, and there is so little I can do now (I have written to the Board of Directors of the synagogue and to the rabbi as well, though I don't know if either of them will grace me with a response.)
And on Saturday, Yom Kippur, my prayers were private, because I just couldn't go back there.