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Girl Abroad: Synagogue Membership in New York

Mosha Lundström Halbert discovers that synagogue membership has its rewards.

Photography by: Aidan Butler (Left), Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apple Images (right).

Photography by: Aidan Butler (Left), Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apple Images (right).

According to a recent report in The New York Times, we young, upwardly mobile MOTs (members of the tribe) are not that into organized religion. Instead, we’re gentile-marrying milk-and-meat mixers who are too hungover come Saturday to schlep to temple.

Which is why I was surprised by the turnout at my first High Holiday service in Manhattan. I went for Kol Nidre, the evening kickoff for the Yom Kippur atone-and-fast-away-your-sins showdown. It is perhaps wrong to call it a holiday at all: Food and drink are verboten, zero gifts are exchanged, and instead of a catchy soundtrack we get the numbing blast of the shofar (ram’s horn). But I was feeling festive and had a few misdeeds that I needed to address, so I went.

Along with me came my bacon-loving mensch of a boyfriend and another couple: he a religious PRJ (Preppy Republican Jew), she a newly converted Carrie Mathison–meets–Miss America powerhouse who has done stints in war zones and the beauty pageant circuit.

Another friend had referred me to The Brotherhood, a progressive synagogue with conservative leanings. As instructed, we arrived early for its community service, open to non-members. A line already stretched around the block, even more noteworthy considering it was Friday night (when most PYTs have other priorities). While I had gone home after work to change into a sombre black Acne frock and my lowest heels, these youthful motley Jews were poured into Alaïa-like looks and stilettos or Slimane-skinny suits finished with crisp kippas. It was as though the service were a prequel to a rollick on the dance floor at Paul’s Baby Grand.

Inside, the female cantor—still a rarity—began to sing the prayers. For the next two-and-a-half hours, as the rabbi took us through the prayer book, I recalled the wrongs I’d committed and the people I’d hurt over the past year. The next day, I awoke feeling lighter on my feet. It had nothing to do with the lack of food in my system, but rather the cleared space in my conscience. Shortly thereafter, I became a member.

Back in Canada, I had relied on my father and Birthright friends to define my reformed Jewish experience, which I floated into and out of whenever was convenient. Now it was time for me to take responsibility for my identity—and what better place to do so than NYC, where Jewish influence is everywhere (and the falafel is truly top-notch). But it’s on my own terms: While many New Yorkers observe the Sabbath, keep kosher and cover up, I’m cool with being Jewish by comparison—a product of an interfaith upbringing and a Zionist pull.

This isn’t just about Jews, though. Recently, a Korean-Canadian girlfriend moved to town. A devout Christian, she church-hopped until she found a congregation that clicked—also a bustling hub of 20-somethings. “Living in New York can be so intense. Focusing on something besides work keeps me grounded,” she said over brunch at Soho House, another holy practice. “Afterwards, it’s like I can breathe again.” Indeed, having one’s own place to worship, whether twice weekly (her case) or intermittently (mine), feels more urgent now that we’re practising New Yorkers—one area where I am undoubtedly devout.

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