illustrative photo of rows of chairs in a synagogue

An unexpected reminder of the wonder of a synagogue experience

There is an old story about the Rabbi of Krakow — Isaac, the son of Jekel — who dreamed that he should travel to Prague to find a treasure buried underneath a bridge. Following his dream, the rabbi made his way to Prague and, arriving at the bridge, found it guarded by a Christian soldier.

After the rabbi explained why he had come, the soldier laughed and responded that he, too, had recently had a dream. In his dream, he was told to travel to Krakow to find a treasure buried behind the stove of a rabbi named Isaac, the son of Jekel. Upon hearing his name, the rabbi shuddered and rushed home to Krakow to discover that the treasure he went looking for in a faraway place was, in fact, right there under his nose all along.

“[S]uch a treasure could only be discovered and fully appreciated by a trip to a distant land and its foreign (in this case, Christian) culture,” the scholar of religion Jeffrey J. Kripal astutely observed in his book “Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions.”

This story recently came to mind while I was grading papers from the students in my “Jews, Judaisms, and Jewish Identities” course at the University of San Francisco. This course has been offered at USF for 15 years as a staple of its pathbreaking Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice.

Founded in 2008 as the first academic program in the world to formally connect Jewish studies with social justice, JSSJ builds on a storied history of Jewish education at USF. In 1977, the university became the first Catholic institution to create a Jewish studies program, and in 2019 it made history again by becoming the first Catholic university to appoint a queer rabbi-in-residence, Rabbi Camille Shira Angel.

One of the major assignments for the course is for students to attend a Shabbat service at a local synagogue and to submit a reflection on the experience in the form of a short paper.

When I read those papers, I felt moved to share some of their reactions, with the thought that some readers, like the Rabbi of Krakow, might realize the treasure that is “hidden behind their stove.”

Students in the class were free to choose which synagogue they would attend: They ended up choosing four different synagogues, all in San Francisco. The excerpts that follow come from the papers submitted by the 90 percent of the students in the course who do not identify as Jews.

The first thing I noticed when reading the papers was the clear apprehension of a strong sense of community. One student wrote that “everyone greeted each other warmly” while another observed “everyone joined hands and did a little circle/dance around the room, and at that moment it really felt like everyone was part of a close-knit community.” A third student captured the feeling of community in this way: “[W]hen I attended this [service] I felt a sort of community love.”

Other students, building on the significance of the convivial feeling, took note of the power of music and song: “The various songs sung were all so beautiful to hear as the members of the congregation joined in producing a very vibrant atmosphere” and “The room was very comforting and uplifting. The soft singing, music, and casual conversation between the rabbis and the attendees created an intimate atmosphere.”

Other students recognized the inclusive quality of the spaces in which they found themselves. One student wrote, “[I]n the service, being seen as a queer individual and welcomed, definitely made an impression on me that I don’t think I have words to pinpoint yet, but it’s similar to the feeling of letting your guard down in an unfamiliar space, without realizing it had been up in the first place.” Another student, attending a service celebrating 50 years of women in the Reform rabbinate, wrote, “The fact that four women were leading the service on that day was so refreshing.”

Another student reflected on the prayerbook and sermon, writing that “from what I was able to read in the [prayerbook] and understand from the [r]abbi’s teaching, what Jewish people learn is just full of kindness … I could sense the kindness and open hearts of everybody around me.”

The experience was so significant for some of the students that they expressed a desire to return. “I intend on going back … and participating in a service again,” one student wrote. Another shared, “I really enjoyed talking to the rabbi and the cantor, telling them how much I enjoyed the service. I even mentioned that I would love to go again.”

Reading these students’ reflections on their synagogue experiences made me wonder how many self-identified Jews have experienced a synagogue service with such a sense of wonder and appreciation.

My students’ words, written for a class at a Catholic institution of higher education no less, have challenged me to see the treasure hidden behind my own stove with fresh eyes and an open heart.

As we come to the end of these two long years away from our synagogues — and for some, even longer — these words serve as a gentle reminder, and even an invitation, to attend a service and come together again as a spiritual community.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg
Rabbi Darren Kleinberg

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor with the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco and the incoming dean of the Aleph Ordination Program.