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By Jacob Weis
Being raised interfaith (as I was, truly, with both Jewish and Catholic traditions and holidays) and observing two religions will inevitably lead to some confrontation with others. For me, the first time this happened was in elementary school, at the lunch table.
For some reason, the kids that I have seen talk about religion other than around holidays or in passing have been Jews. For better or worse, I have noticed that there can be an air of exclusivity amongst some Jewish people—even in young children. Surely this exclusivity can be part of the reason that the Jewish people remain alive and well as a culture and religion, but it can also be to our detriment.
As I sat across from a kid who seemed to be the elementary school dictionary of all things Jewish, it appeared the attention at the table was all his. I don’t remember how it all came up and I don’t know how it came back around to me but all of the sudden he called me in for questioning: “Is your mom or your dad Jewish?” he asked with his head cocked to the side, and a bit of a bobble to it. I answered him, and finished with, “But I am half-Jewish.” He looked smug. “That means that you’re Jewish. You can’t be both.” He said this with a professorial smirk.
I know he sounds a little devilish for an elementary school kid, but he was just proud of where he came from and of the knowledge he had acquired. If it helps to imagine him spewing crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich out of his mouth as he talks, then I recommend that you do that. I always do, and it helps diffuse the bits of white hot childhood rage that I still have left from the incident.
No matter how hard I tried to convince him of my dual faith identity he just came back with smart remarks. The whole table was on his side, and now they were laying into me too. Even the Rice Krispy treat that my mom packed me that day wasn’t going to cheer me up after that.
When I came home from school that day it turned out my parents had the same reaction I did. “How dare that child tell my child who he is or isn’t.” They essentially told me to not engage with him anymore. So I did exactly that, and he and I never really had any problems after that. The four other lunch tables were more than welcoming. To this day, he is still the same little know-it-all that I remember, and we are able to respectfully disagree without any mention of the old incident. In fact, I should thank him. This first confrontation prepared me for the many more to come in my life.
A message to parents who plan on raising their kids in more than one religion: Your child will not come out of this situation unscathed. But the emotional scars that come from it will heal and lead to a strong sense in character and identity. Without this instance and a handful of others, who knows where my tolerance level would be for people who don’t accept my Judaism. Not to mention, there are beautiful things that can come from being interfaith.
The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, “Grant that we may lie down” in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word. It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.
The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hall—I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbi’s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a “shul-in.” I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.
Some say bricks and mortar don’t matter. Buildings are passé. We’ve got coffee houses now. Millennials don’t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. What’s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.
What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one another’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.
I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Book—the Reform Movement’s prayer book—on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.
My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brother’s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We don’t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.
I marry lots of people who “grew up at an area congregation” but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.
The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.
The need to belong is part of the human condition. We all want to feel a sense of home, we seek it out, we write songs and poetry about it and we hold on for dear life when we find it. I figured out how to belong to Judaism at camp.
My Jewish camp was the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I still remember the first time I drove up to the gates, sick with nerves, worried if I could fit in. I also remember the tear-streaked ride home those two months later when I was grounded by such a deep sense of belonging the likes of which I had never felt before.
Each winter, as the countdown for those bright summer days began, we would throw around the term, “10 months for 2.” I suspect that if Twitter had existed in those days, it would have become my favorite hashtag. And this was the reality that we felt deep within our pre-teen and teenage souls; that we lived those ten other months of the year in exile, waiting to return to the holy land once more for those two precious months. Oh, how much we could cram into 60 days.
At camp, I could not only figure out who I was but I could also be anything. I lived in Jewish time and space, where days were marked with fun and creative prayer and song, where we interacted with Israelis on staff who taught us about Israel and connected us to the larger Jewish world, where we learned and shared a common vocabulary and sang familiar Jewish songs in a way I had never experienced at my home synagogue. And because we lived in Jewish time, swimming, arts and crafts, drama and every sport imaginable became part of our Jewish summer camp experience. We were given ownership over our religious experiences and we celebrated Shabbat (and I truly mean celebrated) each week with creativity, music, dance and our own words of gratitude and introspection. I didn’t even realize how much Jewish knowledge I had gained in these series of two months until I got home and realized I knew every melody and every prayer and wanted to teach them to my interfaith parents and my friends (even if they weren’t as keen).
I imagine we all have those transformative experiences in our lives, the ones we think back to regularly, which we credit for our personal growth and identity. Mine was Eisner Camp and I would hazard a guess that the large majority of my fellow campers and counselors would say the same, even though we have all chosen our own, different paths through life. My path led me to the rabbinate, to wanting to make Judaism as alive and vibrant every day as it felt during those summers, to help everyone who wanted to belong to Judaism and the Jewish community and to create connections and friendships that last a lifetime.
The impact that Eisner Camp had on my life is immeasurable because these ten years later, the mere thought of camp makes me smile and remember a million experiences, moments, songs, sounds and people. Writing this blog post alone reminds me of the hot sweaty perfect Friday night song sessions, the trials and tribulations of camp friendships and the moment my team won Maccabiah (color war). I wouldn’t be who I am without camp. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable, engaged Jew—let alone a rabbi, and I certainly wouldn’t still feel like a little piece of my heart is living 10 months for 2.