In the two weeks before I left for my trip to Ukraine, I spent five high holiday services in five different Upper Fairfield County congregations.
While I do that, at least in some part, because of my professional role in our Jewish community, the truth is that I also do it because I love the variety, I find meaning in all different kinds of services, and I consider it part of my own Jewish journey.
It came as no surprise to me then that I found myself doing the same thing over Shabbat in Odessa, enjoying services in two very different congregations.
On Friday night, I went back to Shirat Ha-yam, where earlier in the afternoon I had met Rabbi Yuliya Gris. Shirat Ha-yam is described as a progressive congregation; I'd suggest the parallel in the United States is the reform movement.
Started 17 years ago, the congregation is located on the second floor of what seems from the outside a residential structure. The sanctuary is a small, very simple 400 square foot room, with a cheerful backdrop highlighting the progressive movement, a folding table, and no fancy adornment.
But that should by no means suggest that the congregation lacks in spirit. As the time for Kabbalat Shabbat services came, the room quickly filled up with a crowd of twenty-five, including senior adults, parents, and teens. Rabbi Gris asked her teenage daughter to sit next to me to translate if I needed help following the pages (as the prayer books are in Hebrew and Russian) and understanding the sermon. I could generally follow along in the siddur; the sermon would have been completely lost on me.
Rabbi Gris introduced me to the congregation, and I quickly became quite a curiosity, with everyone wanting to shake my hand and say "Shabbat Shalom," and the teens anxious to practice their English with me. "Hello." "What is your name?" "How are you?"
I followed along with the service quite easily. Many of the tunes were familiar, and, those few that weren't I quickly caught on. I felt embraced as part of a spirited congregation that was not only anxious to welcome me, but has an open door to welcome anyone in the community looking to reclaim or reacclimate themsleves to a once suppressed Judaism.
For Shabbat morning, I chose a different option, walking less than a block from my hotel to the Great Choral Synagogue of Odessa. Built in 1840, seized during the Soviet era to be used as a sports facility, and returned to use as a synagogue in 1997, it now houses an Orthodox congregation primarily comprised of Odessa's Lithuanian Jewish population.
The building is ornate, like many older European synagogues. The attendees were divided by a mehitza, men in the front and women in the back. The siddur I picked up was all in Hebrew; no need to worry about not knowing Russian at this service. In this case, no one knew I was coming or knew who I was. I arrived during the prelimary prayers and had no idea how to find my place in the siddur, but, as I've done in other foreign synagogues, I found barchu and waited for the service to get there, and then I was pretty much on pace for the rest of the service.
With it being the Shabbat in the middle of Sukkot, there were some bonuses in the service today - including hallel and a recitation of the entire book of Ecclesiastes, straight out of a scroll. (Of course, any mention of Ecclesiastes reminds me of a very special moment I shared with Pete Seeger and Reb Zalman Schachter- Shalomi - the founder of the Jewish Renewal moment - in Pete's living room reviewing the words of Ecclesiastes together, which Pete had famously put to music.)
And, like Shirat Ha-yam, the participants at the Great Choral Synagogue were equally spirited, in their own way - it seems often looking upward, or inward, as much as they asked each other. I got caught up in that spirit myself, and those thoughts above and within.
And, like Shirat Ha-yam, the words...and many of the tunes...were just the same - across town, across tradition, and, for me, across the world.
Like many, I have the tradition of closing my eyes when I say the Sh'ma, as I did over Shabbat with the progressive Jewish congregants at Shirat Ha-yam and with the Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish community at the Great Choral Synagogue.
While there are various explanations why many close their eyes during the Sh'ma, I like to think that, with our eyes open we can see our many differences; but, with our eyes closed - and the words and melody of the Sh'ma the same - we can stand truly as one, whether in a 400 square foot room or an ornate 175-plus year old santuary.