Free Range Jew


Some people cheat on their spouses. I cheat on rabbis.

When it comes to synagogues, I play the field. Every shul is my potential home. Every stream of Judaism offers something to refresh my soul. Though my family pays dues at one synagogue, and I’m flirting with joining a second, I really don’t “belong” to anyone.

Many American Jews treasure the kinship and comfort that comes from praying in the same synagogue week after week, year after year. I’ve experienced that too, that sense of an extended family, of “kiddush cousins” you schmooze with each week after services. For much of the past decade, however, I haven’t been a regular shul-goer; and, no surprise, I don’t have strong bonds with any one congregation. When I do pray, variety is the spice that seasons my soul.

So, why would someone who craves adventures, who’s curious about so much of Jewish life, want to return to the same synagogue for every service for the High Holy Days?

And yet, that’s the expectation. “When congregants belong to a congregation, they belong to a community. They eat with this community; they play with this community; they experience life cycle events with the community. And just as you want to be with family on Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah, you’d want to be with the congregation,” says Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, author of “Tapestry of Jewish Time.”

But this model, which thrived in the 20th century, isn’t as successful now. “We are still struggling to figure out how to provide a viable synagogue structure while also accommodating the drop-in mode of affiliating that is more common today,” says Rabbi Cardin. “There are many Jews who don’t want to feel like potted plants, bound to a particular congregation because of the fee structure.”

Last September, a sort of spiritual madness descended upon me. Dressed in holiday finery, the kids pacified with lollipops, my family followed me to service after service, switching boroughs and denominations. By the end of Yom Kippur, we’d navigated five different synagogues in all. One Reform. Three Conservative. One Orthodox. Each offered something unique and valuable.

Beneath the gilded, soaring ceilings of a local Reform congregation, I experienced a moment of inner calm. After listening to a d’var Torah by a female leader at an innovative, new Orthodox community, I discovered the inner strength to resolve a quarrel with my husband. As the sun set outside a Conservative congregation, I prayed and swayed alongside hundreds of worshipers, men and women together, joined in one voice, as Yom Kippur drew to a close with one final, last blast.

Given the tickets-only policies of so many synagogues, this journey was not so easily managed. My husband shook his head in bemused disbelief each morning as he asked for the itinerary. My friends wondered why I wanted to make life so complicated. But if, like me, you are hungering for a diverse menu of services during the Days of Awe, or if you just hope to sample what different congregations offer, or if you simply want to pray together with family members who don’t belong to the same synagogue, there’s no need to despair. For starters, the Reform movement adheres to a “reciprocity arrangement” nationwide, which allows long-standing members of one URJ congregation to pray at another URJ congregation. Some congregations extend that benefit across the denominational divide.

Also, many Jewish organizations offer free services on the holidays, though donations and reservations are appreciated. In Manhattan, for example, these include the traditional Kol HaNeshamah (; the progressive Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (; and the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary ( Finally, some services don’t fill all the seats, and welcome anyone interested in prayer.

Still, I can’t help wishing we could have a system similar to the one available in present-day Germany, where Jews opt to pay an annual “church tax” based on income, and then can wander freely from synagogue to synagogue; where the idea of a Jewish community extends beyond one sanctuary.

But maybe it’s just a matter of time before I’m done sowing my religious oats. Maybe 5773 will be the year I finally settle down and call one shul home.

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at