By Alex Fleksher
When you’re a teenager, it’s all about how long yamim noraim davening in shul is. And unwashed, uncooperative hair.
When you’re newly married with a baby (gratefully, in a sheitel), it’s all about how you wish you could go to shul.
Certainly, there are many new moms who relish their new role, appreciating lazy yom tov mornings at home with young children. Yet there are many mothers who feel that now they don’t have the structured davening in shul, with the uplifting singing and sense of community shul provides, they want it back. They struggle to connect to the importance and solemnity of the day. They struggle to finish a Shemonei Esrei in their living room.
I experienced this for the first good decade of my life as a mother. I remember one Rosh Hashana walking despondently in the playground of our apartment complex thinking how severely disconnected I felt, how serious Rosh Hashana was, and how I felt utterly hopeless in treating it with the meaning and reverence it required and deserved. I felt like my hands were tied; it wasn’t my fault, but what was I meant to do? The fault was not so much that I was with my children in a playground and not in shul; the deeper problem was, I felt, that years of being out of shul had desensitized my spiritual sensitivity to the Days of Awe.
Let me give you some background. I was that girl who was always in shul. I grew up in Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta which was the beating heart of the Orthodox community. Everyone was in shul. I accompanied my father every Friday night and Shabbos morning to davening. I listened to every Shabbos morning drasha delivered by Rabbi Ilan Feldman. I came back for shalosh seudos with my friends. We’d all hang out in the lobby – every type of teenager who was growing up in Atlanta was there. As I got more serious about my frumkeit, I’d go back in for Maariv. Beth Jacob was an extension of my home.
As a beautiful consequence – and one which I realized as a new mom was at the root of my challenge – my ruchniyus was very much tied up with shul. I felt most connected to Hashem when I sat in the soaring, stained glass domed sanctuary, looking up at the aron and up to my Rav who stood tall on the elevated bima as he gave his brilliantly formulated and executed drashos which taught me so much and inspired me weekly. I had a weekly boost wired into my spiritual DNA in my most formative years. And the davening was second to the Kotel. Sitting in the cedar pews there since the 60s with the shul’s black Artscroll siddur with golden letters cradled in my hands, I was in my happy place.
Thanks to formative experiences connecting to learning on the Michlelet NCSY summer program in Israel and in seminary, Torah learning became another way that I fueled spirituality and kept the fire of my Judaism burning. I’d be reading Worldmask by Rabbi Akiva Tatz at the beach next to my mother who’d chuckle at me as she’d enjoy her paperback. And I found inside learning with a friend, digging into the text, the most intellectually and spiritually nourishing.
So my two main avenues of connection – learning and davening in shul – experienced some significant roadblocks when I entered motherhood, and those closed roads stayed closed for many years, some of which really have never reopened the same way. But maybe they weren’t meant to.
I no longer sit down and crack a Hebrew sefer. I could if I wanted to, but I don’t have the headspace for it. I go for English sefarim and accessible Jewish self-help books.
I often struggle with davening. It used to be my primary spiritual love language; I’m not certain it is anymore. On one hand, my lack of connection is certainly due to a lack of consistency over the years. Rushing to work in the early morning hours, being jolted awake by babies and toddlers and alarm clocks to ship off children on school buses. And then when there finally was a quiet moment, there was work and a never-ending to-do-list over my head. Stopping, putting everything on hold, and shutting off the world to daven has never been easy for me as a busy mother. But when I make an effort to crack open the siddur from my youth, it does feel like plugging in to a familiar and natural mode of connection to my Creator. And when something feels good, you know you need to do it more often.
On the other hand – and this is the core truth which enabled me to move forward in my second decade of motherhood – I developed many new love languages in my relationship with Hashem. Hashem gave me a home of my own. Hashem gave me a husband and children. Hashem gave me professional and personal outlets that enable me to use my skills to hopefully serve Him best. My world has expanded beyond the Beth Jacob sanctuary of my youth. I feel like Hashem is telling me, “Alex, I have given you gifts you never could have imagined at 16 years old. I have added people and opportunities into your life to enable you to grow and to serve Me with. And with all these, you are connecting to Me.”
Now, it’s hard for me to sit in shul for long periods of time because I’ve been out of it for so long. But what I wish I knew and understood as a new mother is that Hashem was trying to tell me, “You are where I want you to be with your and My children, with the family I have given you. Find Me there. Find Me in the words of the siddur that speak to you, whatever words you can say, wherever you are. I have given you new ways to speak to me and connect to Me. Just open your eyes; they are right before you.”
So these yamim tovim, you’ll find me, finally at peace 20 years of motherhood later, in my living room.