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At Central Synagogue

Surprising Gifts from a Downtown Shabbat

Posted February 20, 2019

By Rory Byrne

On a wickedly windy, cold February evening, my children and I braved the weather and made our way to a downtown family service at Central.

We are new to the congregation, and our daughter is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah in Spring of 2020. So, in truth, we’ve only been to a handful of services in the stunning uptown sanctuary. And as much as we love it, let’s be honest, at 6 o’clock on a Friday, from downtown, it’s a schlep. 

At the risk of revealing myself as the worst box checker ever, we all know of the service attendance requirement for Hebrew School children, so when we were offered a family service downtown, we couldn’t pass up the chance to knock one off in our own neighborhood. No taxi/subway/Uber required. Rejoice! Praise Hashem!

So we went.

And here’s the thing ... it was, by far, the best thing I’ve done on a Friday since the days of yore when I used to enjoy going out on a Friday night.

The Hebrew Union College sanctuary, where the services took place, is a warm cocoon with Torahs dressed in the colors of happiness and an uncommonly intimate setting that immediately weaved a multitude of families into one.

The clergy, accompanied as always by an incredible band of musicians, brought what I have come to know as their contagious spirit of joy and light, moving every voice in the room to join in song, including mine (much to the chagrin of my children).

The thing that struck me the most is how very real it all felt. No pomp. No circumstance.  Just joy. And in a place like New York City, it is not only a welcome respite but a rare opportunity to heal and renew.

We saw friends we’d made at the B’nei Mitzvah retreat a week prior and added new friends too. We sang, we laughed, and we ate (but of course). We had a beautiful, simple, peaceful, soulful experience, together.

When we left, my older child said, “Mom, you know what I love about Judaism? It’s really just about peace and joy.”

And as I held back the tears that make my kids go, “Oh Mom, come on!” I replied, “It really is, my love. It really is.”