You may have met some of us. We are the no-longer-married mothers who are raising sons in the Modern Orthodox community. Not always an easy feat. With no specific statistics to impress you, I will share the considerations, frustrations, and consternations of my personal experience.
When I was married, we rarely had guests at the Shabbat table. My husband was not eager to host. Once I was a divorced head of household, though, I was eager to invite people to my table, share meals and divrei Torah, and singzemirot. I told my children who would be joining us the following Shabbat for lunch. The younger two children—my twins, a boy and a girl—were joyful, but my oldest, the son who had just turned bar mitzvah, quietly turned to me and said, “Why are you inviting people to our house? We don’t have a normal Shabbos table—there is no Abba to make Kiddush!” And that is where my struggle to create a “new normal” began.
That Shabbat, one of our guests chanted the Kiddush. Sometimes I would ask my older son to say Kiddush. I wanted to bring new experiences to my home—among them having me, the Ema, recite Hamotzi over the challah. My sons had never seen this done, were put off, and let me know that in loud voices.
Choosing a Synagogue
The challenges of being newly divorced and trying to figure out finances, hold down a full-time job, drive multiple car pools a week, supervise homework, take children to doctor’s appointments, and cheer them on at sports games and dramatic performances all took time and coordination as well as stamina.
But one of the most difficult issues to navigate was choosing a synagogue where we could feel comfortable as a family.
I had always been a shul goer. My childhood memories include many Shabbat morning treks to a synagogue almost a mile from our apartment. On those long walks, up the hill, holding my father’s hand, in all kinds of weather, he was mumbling prayers. It was on those walks that I also learned from him to greet every passerby. I loved going to shuland continued to do so into my adulthood.
My uncomfortable experience when I was married had repudiated the old adage (popularized by a Latin American charismatic leader), “The family that prays together stays together.” So now it was time to leave the shtiebel where I had prayed for most of my married life and find a shul and rabbi that served my needs.
We were living in Flatbush; there were myriad options within a one-mile radius in that part of Brooklyn. The search began. I explained to my children that we would be trying out new shuls. I would introduce the name of the shuloption of that week and tell them which of our neighbors/their friends davened at that shul. The younger two children were eager for the adventure. My oldest went along with it for two Shabbatot, and then announced that he would be going back to the shtiebel so he could sit next to his friends. I was unsure how to handle that. And then it occurred to me to call the father of his best friend; father and son davened at the shtiebel. I nervously asked him to keep an eye on my son. He, in a very understanding voice, assured me that there was a place on their bench for my son, and that he “would be fine.”
When I chose the shuls to try out, I always chose one where I knew someone. I would carefully direct my nine-year-old son to go into the men’s section and sit near the neighbor/friend. My son was not always comfortable. He began to balk at going to shul—something that he had never done. After a few weeks of testing the shul waters, the twins and I were getting weary.
The Shul That Felt Like Home
Then one weekday evening I went off to Drisha for a lecture. Before attending the class, I struck up a conversation with one of the rabbis who taught a class at Drisha. Rabbi Moshe Sokol had a reputation for scholarship, and I discovered that he was approachable. When I mentioned that I lived in Flatbush, he asked where I davened, and I explained my current quest. “Have you ever been to the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush?” Rabbi Sokol queried. No, I had not, although I had heard good things about it. It was a bit far from my home. “You should try it,” he continued. “You would like it.” “Do you go there?” I asked him. “Sure,” he smiled. “I’m the rabbi!” So the Yavneh Minyan was added to my list.
A few weeks later, when the children were away for Shabbat, I decided to take the walk and pray at the Yavneh Minyan. As a Shabbat-only shul, it met in a school building. There was no talking during tefillah, a definite plus. There were a few people there whom I knew and felt comfortable with. The gabbai recited the prayer for the State of Israel (something that did not happen in many of the other shuls I had attended). When Rabbi Sokol spoke, the lacy curtain at the top part of the mehitzah was pushed aside, and the rabbi alternated looking from the men to the women as he spoke. At the cookies-and-soda Kiddush, people were friendly. At some point during my first Shabbat visit, Rabbi Sokol approached me and asked if I felt comfortable in the shul, and would I consider returning. I explained about my concern for my son. The rabbi assured me that he would do his best to make sure my son was comfortable.
The following week I convinced the twins to join me, and we walked to the Yavneh Minyan. The weather was pleasant, although they did comment on the long walk. We entered the shul; davening had already begun, and I led them to the bookshelves at the back so that we could get siddurim and humashim. I was whispering to my son about where I would sit and where he could sit so he could see me. As we were conferring, Rabbi Sokol spotted us, got up from his chair, and came over to where we were standing. The rabbi shook hands with my son, called him by name, and said, “Please come with me; we have been saving a seat for you.” He quietly guided my son to the front table near the aronkodesh, and showed him to a seat situated between his son (close to my son’s age) and his father (a kindly, grandfatherly-looking man). For the next eight years, until he went off to Israel, that was my son’s shul seat. My children did not always welcome the long walk to shul (especially in inclement weather), but they joined me because the Yavneh Minyan felt like home.
Rabbi Moshe Sokol understood the difficulties of a mother raising sons in the Modern Orthodox community. He always made my family feel welcome. It was he whom I consulted with about making Kiddush and reciting Havdalah. When I considered the idea of no longer covering my hair, I called him, learned through the sources he suggested for me, and discussed my options with him.
A Linchpin for our Family
The shul was a linchpin for our family. My children made friends there. My daughter gave a d’var Torah there when she became a bat mitzvah (unheard of in other shuls in our neighborhood). My younger son read his entire bar mitzvah parasha, and there were warm handshakes and some hugs from those who had watched him mature on their side of the mehitzah. My son became one of the youth leaders there. As a member of the shul’s board for nine years, I was able to model communal leadership for my children. Today my three children are still shul-goers, raising my Jewish shul-going grandchildren.
It was not easy to find the right fit. But, starting with a God-appointed conversation, I found my spiritual home.
In the ensuing years, I have moved a number of times for jobs, but I never lost touch with the minyan. Each year for Rosh Hashana I return to the Yavneh Minyan. Some of the members who continue to be close friends have made aliyah or moved to other places. Some are still davening there, and they greet me warmly. The rabbi always inquires after me and my children. There is the same quiet, serious praying, the same heartfelt melodies, and the memories. It is the best way for me to start my year.
An educator for more than forty years, Chaye Kohl has taught both Judaic and general studies classes, in elementary, middle, and high school. She has been a college professor, an education administrator, and a lecturer presenting Torah-themed talks in the various communities where she has lived. She is the proud parent of three children and a devoted savta.
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