Monday, September 8, 2008

Confused at Beth Halfpipe

Shiksa Girlfiend and I were hard at work trying to decide where to head to for Friday night services and decided to finally grace the other (other) Conservative shul in town with our presence. We had never been to it because it has, until recently, been under protracted and extensive building renovation. Unlike some of the other games in town whose existence or reputation I had been vaguely aware of during my adolescence, this place was starting off with a completely blank slate. It could totally go either way. We left it up to the fates (angels? sefirot? fortune cookie?) and headed off.

I will be very honest. It was very hard to get past the place's architecture. The first thing you see when you walk up is a giant sandstone semi-circle sitting on top of the building. Supposedly this is a menorah but all I saw was one of these, hence our super-witty nickname. Underneath the pipe was a series of gray aluminum boxes. That plus some open-air courtyards made up the whole shul. More on architecture in a minute.

The rabbi was very nice- we had been expecting the older, Soloveitchik-like guy from a year ago, but it turns out he had gotten bored and fled the backwoods of San Francisco for someplace with some REAL Jewish opportunities-somewhere in Georgia. The new rabbi was in his late 30s. Services were in the small chapel, whose wood paneling, according to a brochure I snagged, was supposed to resemble or mimic Sequoias or something, but just reminded me of somebody's rumpus room from the 1960s.

I was wearing a cool new blue fedora (post-to-come on inane hat conversations with Mama Yid) and Shiksa Girlfriend was wearing a longish skirt on account of it being cold and dreary. Anyway, apparently we looked ridiculously Orthodox because the rabbi shook my hand, then offered it to SG, who was looking around at all the paneling (not a fan) and missed her cue. She gave him a befuddled "What's going on?" look, but he mistook it for a "OMG, you awful man! I'm shomer negiah and horribly offended that you would try to touch my milky-white maiden hand!" look and very embarrasedly yanked his hand away, which SG then insisted on grabbing just to show him that the issue was her being slightly spacey and not Ortho.

Services were very basic- a small group of people, mostly late-middle-aged. I checked out a Conservative version of the Mishkan Tefillah that I hadn't heard of- which was pretty user-friendly, if a little cluttered on the page (sorry, but four columns is a lot, especially when you throw in sidebars for poetry and other crap). The rabbi had a nice voice, though everyone else seemed somewhere between tone-deaf and voicebox-cancer-survivor.

Particularly cool (at first, anyway) was that after the service, the rabbi offered to show new people around the shul. It was a very nice gesture, but it also unfortunately gave us a first-hand look at just how wacky their building is.

He led us to the main sanctuary, which, according to SG, looked like "two movie theaters crammed together face-to-face." (I would have gone for, "not terribly functional lecture hall".) The walls were made of this weird slat-wall wood that looked like it was supposed to be in a hardware store holding up tools or something. The rabbi gave a whole spiel about "we were trying to pare it down and think about just the bare basics of what a synagogue, like, is. Some people are confused by it, but that's the whole point of minimalism, right?" We both gave polite but skeptical looks. The rabbi continued to dig himself deeper by pointing out that "this is totally like the synagogue at Masada. Nowadays all the focus is on the rabbi and the ark, but we want to take the focus back and direct it at EACH OTHER." I spent the next several minutes thinking about how much worse various services I had been to would have been if there had been a fellow congregant staring at me, face-to-face no less, the entire time. Also, how about using a reference that's less than two thousand years old? I will admit that their digital light-up yizkor wall was kind of cool, though it seems like a real waste of money.

All of their hallways were re-done to use pre-existing space from neighboring common walls, thereby saving them a lot of space. An unfortunate side effect of this was that it made us feel like we were walking through the steam tunnels in someone's basement (sparse florescent lighting did not help). We concluded by walking through a small courtyard that showed the rabbi's fishbowl-like-office (he pretended he liked it) and their Beit Midrash/library which had a 70s-style conversation pit (which I actually liked, but SG just had to be negative about).

I will admit that I feel slightly guilty about nit-picking a shul simply on the basis of weird architecture- especially after going to the new Jewish Museum (not a fan) and leafing through a whole coffee-table-book of crappy synagogue pictures. But the bottom line was that it contributed to the feeling of a place that was sterile and lifeless. (No one would argue that Beth Elderly's building is all that awesome, but it feels like they use what little space they have to their advantage.) That may change, and I hope it does. And to give it a fair shake, we should go back in a few months to check them out again. But for a first impression- not so great.