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Searching for a spiritual home

Inside a Jewish synagogue.

Inside a Jewish synagogue. Photo Credit: iStock

All I really want, I suppose, is to hear the music of my forefathers. But the current scenes of reverence may not be the place to do it.

Like many Jewish people, I may not be the most observant, but in my heart -- and certainly in my cultural, religious identity -- I most fully identify with my heritage.

For years, I've meant to reconnect with a synagogue. I was spoiled, as a boy. My family belonged a temple led by a young, fairly hip rabbi, Sanford Lowe, at Temple Judea in Valley Stream. Lowe was great with kids, but at the height of the Vietnam War, wearing one of the first renditions of the peace symbol on a medallion chain may not have endeared him to the congregation's more conservative members.

As an adult, my visits to shul (the Yiddish word for synagogue) became limited to memorials, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs (for Jewish boys and girls turning 13), and myriad other celebrations.

But when my father passed away more than 20 years ago, I felt one of his children should be in temple that weekend, saying a prayer. When I walked into Temple Gates of Zion in Valley Stream, I was stunned to see that the synagogue was empty. A custodian pointed me in the right direction, to a meeting room off a corridor.

Attendance on some Friday nights was too limited to use the huge sanctuary. Mostly, the 20 or so gathered were old men.

It brought tears to my eyes, and a warmth to my soul, to once again hear the prayers and melodies I had known in my youth. It was also charming to think that I was in the kind of small chamber that my grandfathers would have worshipped in, during the first part of the 20th century, in humble storefront temples and the like, on the lower East Side and in Brooklyn.

But until the last few months, I had only been to a handful of festivities, when I finally began an exploration I meant to commence two decades ago, finding a temple in Nassau County that spoke to me in the same lovely way I remembered.

The pleasure of being together in a community setting is, of course, another benefit and appeal of praying with neighbors. As I've gone to several synagogues, however, I've been astonished that so often, the music is gone. The cantor -- the singer trained to help lead the assemblage -- is often playing a guitar, or being accompanied by another musician or two.

The psalms of the ages now sound like a folk music concert, or genial pop music standards. I'm told by a very devout friend, the son of a Christian minister, that many churches have adopted the same practice.

Clearly, all of this is an attempt to seem more modern, and appeal to younger celebrants. But since so many temples and churches continue to struggle with reduced numbers, one has to question such wisdom.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a rock guy from way back. Some of my brightest memories of growing up on Long Island are of playing in the backyard, with the hits of the 1960s playing on a little transistor radio.

In the late 1960s, Temple Judea actually must have been one of the first "Houses of God" ever to have a full rock concert service, enlisting an outside group. Later that year, some of the congregation's more talented teens got the rabbi's permission to enact their own rock service.

The answer for me may simply be to go to the more Conservative or Orthodox of temples. Adaptation and evolution are necessary, of course, for the survival of any culture. Yet we ignore a religion's most beneficent rituals at the peril of losing the enduring essence of what being in a house of worship has happily meant for the followers of many faiths during our uniquely American epoch.

I don't feel that you have to be in a church or synagogue to have a relationship with God, or to sense a spiritual presence in one's life. But there is a particular beauty when the walls and halls of our centers of devotion also echo with all these notes of grace.

James H. Burns,
Franklin Square

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