This time last year the Detroit Tigers where in the World Series. Though this fact probably barely registered as a blip on the sports-radars of most our congregant families, it was major event in the Winkelman/Batchelor household. Neither Steven nor I are usually big baseball fans, but the Tigers’ rise to the Series had brought out the inner-Detroiter in my transplanted spouse. Suddenly, we were spending every available evening tuned in to the ongoing games.
For me this experience brought about an interesting conversion. Up until then my estimation of baseball boiled down to this: a bunch of grown men in silly outfits being paid six-figure salaries to run around in circles. This simplistic view was quickly corrected as Steven led me through a crash-course on the subtleties of baseball. Soon, I not only could I distinguish a pop-fly from a line-drive, but I also began to appreciate the differences in temperament and style of the various players. In the end, I became even more enthralled by the games than Steven.
Over the past year I have come to see my conversion to a baseball fan as a metaphor for the synagogue experience. Let’s face it, for many modern Jews, our worship services can be as tedious and peculiar as a bunch of men in stirrup pants running in circles for hours on end. But the same elements that made the 2006 World Series so exciting to me, can also transform our experience of Jewish ritual:
Home-Team Advantage: The game is always more exciting when we are rooting for a particular team. In the same way, the services are more exciting when we are personally invested in the “players.” When a friend or relative takes on the challenge of reading a Torah portion, when a child steps up to lead us in “Ashrei,” whenever we feel a personal connection to those on the bima—the service is always more exciting when we feel invested as a community.
High-Stakes Ball: Like my husband Steven, a lot of fans come out of the woodwork when their team is suddenly in the “big leagues.” Challenge and excellence make the World Series thrilling beyond other games. Likewise, the synagogue experience is heightened when we and those around us take on new challenges and learn new skills. Just ask last year’s adult b’not mitzvah, this past summer’s Torah reading graduates—or for that matter, anyone who attended the services when these folks flexed their new “mitzvah-muscles.” The challenges of gaining new synagogue skills may be daunting, but the thrill of meeting those challenges makes them all the more worthwhile.
Rules of the Game: Rules generally get a bad rap nowadays, but let’s face it—without rules baseball would be completely meaningless. Only when you are familiar with the rules of the game do moments such as “two men out, bases loaded,” gain potency and excitement. Just like baseball, the more we know about the art of synagogue ritual (Torah reading, liturgical poetry, prayer modes, etc.), more that we enjoy. As our knowledge expands we begin to appreciate and anticipate variation in practice and interpretation that you may never have even noticed before.
So what are two things that you can do to make services more engaging? Learn and participate. By taking small steps as individuals and working as a team, we can grow our services into a grand-slam community experience. Now let’s get out there and play ball!