‘Shul shopping’ in New York: A Jewish millennial’s two years of wandering

Our search for a spiritual home.

The Manhattan skyline of New York City. Photo by Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Schlepping the contents of our lives up the three flights of stairs to our new apartment, we noticed mezuzot (prayer scrolls ) posted on the door frames of three different apartments before we arrived at our unit.

It was August of 2020 and my fiance and I had just moved to New York City — he from Seattle and I from St. Louis. Both of us had been raised Jewish and knew New York’s reputation as the epicenter of Jewish life outside of Israel. What we didn’t know, but slowly found out over the course of the next two years, was that finding the right Jewish community in New York City would be a bigger schlep than carrying everything you own up a three-story walk-up.

It’s called “shul shopping,” and should qualify as an Olympic sport. Shul is Yiddish for synagogue, but colloquially, shul shopping really refers to community hopping. You “shop” around, attending different synagogues, temples and other Jewish community groups until you find one that sticks.

With 1,000-plus synagogues and more than 1.5 million Jews living across New York’s five boroughs, the city has no shortage of Jewish community options. There are synagogues that have stood since the early 1800s, new experimental groups that pop up overnight and everywhere countless nuances of observance, countries of origin and intersectional identities.

We were stoked to access it all. Surely, with so many different Jewish spaces to explore, we would find our perfect fit, the community of our hopes and dreams.

Like many other Jewish millennials, my fiance and I are officially “over the labels.” When someone asks us “What are you?” — where do we place our Jewish identity in terms of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, to name just the best-known denominations — we wince.

In the 2020 Pew Research survey on American Jewish life, 41% of Jewish people ages 18-29 don’t identify with a particular branch of Judaism, and we too were focused primarily on finding a community that reflected our values, nurtured our spiritual knowledge and provided an enjoyable social outlet. We wanted a place for young adults that embraced tradition, used a lot of Hebrew, valued and promoted gender, racial and other diversity, offered learning opportunities, and had a friendly and welcoming vibe.

Was that all too much to ask? For a lot of places, it was. With COVID-19 still very present in our first six months as New Yorkers, our shul shopping got off to a slow start. Nevertheless, we managed to explore communities, temples and synagogues, both in person and virtually, over the course of two years.

We met friendly people everywhere we went, but it often felt like something was missing or that the energy of the place just wasn’t right for us. We also had some wild experiences: A synagogue described to us as “simultaneously a nursing home and a fraternity house” completely lived up to its billing. There was the community where we were bamboozled into being filmed for a music video for the relative of the rabbi, and a service where ushers shook collection baskets throughout the pews (the first time we had ever seen that in a Jewish space).

We had people ignore us; others invited us for dinner. We visited places where people dressed in suits, and places where people took off their shoes. We heard people sing their hearts out and others who whispered their prayers quickly. Rabbis gave sermons about Torah, knowing your neighbors, the pandemic, politics, science and mental health.

One memorable service incorporated live rock with a concert-quality light show — great for Phish fans, but we didn’t want Shabbat to feel as if we’d dropped acid. At another community, we were left standing with our Shabbat dinner plates in our hands, nowhere to sit, after we were asked to make room at the table for a visiting rabbi and his wife. 

By the end of our second year in New York, we were exhausted. We had moved out of our walk-up to the opposite end of Manhattan, became busy with work and were planning our wedding. We had begun to move on from our quest for the perfect community. We had our Jewish friends, Shabbat dinners to attend, and maybe that was all we needed.

Then one day we heard of a community that was running a “learner’s service,” designed to help individuals better follow along with the traditional choreography and liturgy of a Shabbat service. Always interested in learning, we thought we’d give it a try, but we’d been down that road too many times to have any delusions. As I put my coat on and grabbed my purse, I said to my fiance, “Remember, we are going to learn, not to make friends or find a community.” We’d get in and get out.

When I was growing up my parents had a phrase: “Man plans, and God laughs.” At the learner’s service, we enjoyed ourselves and we went back the following week. Much to our surprise, we ended up staying for four hours after the prayer service ended — eating lunch, drinking wine and schmoozing. We met people who share our values of inclusivity and tradition, who take Judaism seriously, but not themselves too seriously.

Before we realized it, two years and a dozen communities later, we had finally found a spiritual home.

Writing this now, I’m bracing myself for the inevitable text messages and in-person conversations with well-intentioned members of my Jewish circle: “You didn’t tell me you were looking for a place! I know a great place. I know the rabbi, they are amazing!”

They say if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. That applies to shul shopping too. There are myriad options for Jewish community life in this city. Since our people wandered the desert for 40 years, perhaps we too are bound to wander the five boroughs looking for a place that feels like home.

(Tori Luecking is a 2022-23 Religion News Service-Interfaith America Religion Journalism Fellow. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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