How We Found the Right Synagogue for Us

  

By Elizabeth Vocke

 

Almost two years ago we started talking about joining a synagogue. We knew it was time to put our daughter in Sunday school if she was going to be a bat mitzvah (which so far, is the plan—her choice). The synagogue we chose for Sunday school gave us a year before we had to fully commit and join, so we waited. But this year, we had to join for her to continue to attend Sunday school.

Boy do I feel like an adult.

This is the first time I’ve belonged to a synagogue since attending with my family as a child. And, it’s the first time my husband has belonged ever since, well, he’s not Jewish.

Choosing a synagogue was not an easy decision. There are two local synagogues that we were trying to choose between. One is a Conservative synagogue that my extended family has belonged to for more than 60 years. Our name is on a Torah, and, it’s also where our daughter attended preschool. So we have a strong sense of history there.

The other is a Reform synagogue that has a much larger congregation, and in particular a much larger group of children.

In the end, this was the deciding factor. But it took us a while to get there.

Over the years, we’ve visited both during the High Holidays, and enjoyed both. They are very inclusive and we felt comfortable as an interfaith family. This is great, but it didn’t help us in trying to choose one over the other. We talked to friends at each congregation and weighed the pros and cons.

The Conservative synagogue is where I had family, a sense of history and connection— that on its own was almost enough to sway us to join. But when I compared the religious schools and thought about my own experiences in religious school, in a very small Jewish community, we saw the benefits of the larger Reform synagogue.

There were other things we considered.

I write a weekly “Mensch of the Week” column and during one interview, I learned about our Reform synagogue’s annual Mitzvah Day. Dozens of congregants go out to organizations across the community and spend a day giving back. I loved this emphasis on community and volunteerism. Plus, there were many opportunities to get involved socially and the events looked like fun.

I’m sure there are similar opportunities for events and social engagements at both synagogues, and ultimately, it came down to the number of children in the larger congregation.

During that first year, as I dropped my daughter off at Sunday school, I saw my own friends, watched families greet each other with excitement and saw how happy my daughter was when I picked her up. She made new friends and wanted to do play dates after Sunday school with the kids in her class.

So, we chose to stick with the Reform synagogue and have been happy with our decision. And while the fact that the synagogue we joined is a Reform congregation didn’t really play into our decision, I certainly see the benefits for an interfaith family like ours.

We recently attended our first High Holy Day services as members. I was struck by the sense of peace I experienced. For the first time that day I could quiet my mind, enjoy the choir, think and just be.

Our next step is to figure out if and how the synagogue will be a part of our daily lives. For my husband, that’s a bigger question. Synagogue has never been a big part of my life, but when I join something I tend to enjoy it more if I’m active, so now I’m trying to figure out if and how to get involved. Maybe Sisterhood, maybe volunteering in some capacity. Maybe next year.

For now, I’m enjoying bumping into friends at Sunday school drop-off and reflecting on those peaceful moments I had during the holidays.

Our Gay, Interfaith Family’s Surprising Synagogue-Shopping Experience

  

By Liat Katz

Pews in a synagogue facing the stage area

“A Y A M,” She writes.

“Um, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,” I respond.

“Nope, it’s just in Hebrew,” the 6-year-old says.

Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogue’s Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And she’s left-handed too, which makes this backwards-forwards thing even harder.

The whole figuring-out-the-Jewish thing in our modern world has been complicated. Finding a Jewish community that is both warm and accepts our two-mom interfaith family was also difficult, but I think we are starting to find a rhythm.

My wife, Lisa, is not Jewish (she is a recovering Baptist), but is completely on board with raising our kids Jewish. She took time to learn some Hebrew, she helps the kids get to Hebrew school, light candles, says prayers on Shabbat, and seems to be more knowledgeable about Judaism than I am at this point. She also makes the best latkes I have ever tasted.

For our oldest girl’s naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. I’m not kidding. Of course he had no problem with the fact that were gay and interfaith. And the ceremony was beautiful. But beyond candle lighting and the occasional high holiday service, we did not have much of a Jewish household after that ceremony.

That was, until a couple of years ago, when we heard that kids absolutely have to start by third grade in Hebrew School to be on the bat mitzvah track. Aviva, our older child, was almost in third grade. And being a child of a Holocaust survivor, I felt compelled to partake in this Jewish tradition for all those that could not. Besides, though I am not very religious, I wanted to have our kids have a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish community.

When I lived in Israel, I could be a part of the Jewish community—and feel Jewish by virtue of living in a Jewish land, speaking the language, interacting with the people. But here, in the U.S., going to temple seems to be where we need to connect to the Jewish community.

So we started shopping for synagogues to join. We started with the obvious ones for our family—Reconstructionist. We went to a few services and kids’ services at a relatively local Reconstructionist synagogue. I looked around: Lots of gay families, check. Interfaith families, check. Even racial diversity (pretty unusual at most synagogues), check. Interesting services with lots of opportunities for activities, check. The only thing missing was, well, warmth. Being Gay-friendly did not make them friendly-friendly. Nobody really spoke to us, looked at us or acknowledged us, or each other, either. Not the place for us.

We checked out Reform synagogues. The communities were nice, but huge. And somehow it wasn’t what I wanted. Why didn’t I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversity…but I realized it wasn’t like the services I grew up in. The tunes to the songs were different, and the prayers were mostly in English.

So it turned out that this non-traditional family that had babies in a non-traditional way, wanted a synagogue that was more…traditional.

Looking online for a Jewish community, I stumbled upon Kehilat Shalom, a small Conservative synagogue that was about 15 miles away from our house. The Rabbi looked nice. And the midweek Hebrew class was held online, which meant we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere after school every week.

I contacted the Rabbi and got a lovely response. We went to a service. No gay people, but the people were warm, asked us genuine questions, and invited us to various groups.

The services were mostly in Hebrew, and the tunes were as I remembered them. The sanctuary was beautiful, and bathed in natural light. I closed my eyes and exhaled. We enrolled our older daughter in Hebrew School—and the mid-week Hebrew school class with a special Skype-type program was so helpful and you know, just like the ancient Israelites had planned.

And as I dropped her off for Sunday classes, I went in to Rabbi Arian’s office to chat. Yes, he is knowledgeable about all things Rabbinic and Halachic, but he is also surprisingly, human. I got to know him and his great wife, Keleigh. And they got to know our family. They invited our family to their house, and we invited them to ours.

Of course, I did panic when we invited the Rabbi over. What do we cook? What plates do we use? We made pizza. Vegetarian pizza. My kids started to play a pretend restaurant game and offered the Rabbi a ham and cheese sandwich—he took it in stride.

And one Fall afternoon, there came a surprising new edition to the litany of endless childhood questions that often makes this mommy feel inadequate. In addition to my daughters’ questions like: Why don’t we have a…Christmas tree?…a daddy?…a beach house? they now, also ask me:“Why don’t we have a Sukkah?

As I got to talk with the Rabbi more, I began to understand conceptions of God and faith in a more relatable and fulfilling way. I discovered that maybe I want more than just Jewish culture in my life. And as the Rabbi got to know us and others in our community, he became more interested in LGBTQ issues.

In fact, he recently did a talk entitled, “Reflections on Ten Years of LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaism” at synagogue. And after he took a tour of civil rights sites (and the Names Project) in Atlanta, he wrote in a weekly Shabbat email and blog post: “The unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?”

Maya is slowly learning to spell both in Hebrew and English. Aviva continues to connect via computer to her teacher and to class, and now she also connects to Judaism through an overnight camp. And as I connect to a Rabbi, a God, and a community that are both thoughtful and inclusive, I realize that our life is even more diverse and warmly Jewish than I ever expected it could be.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

Liat Katz, a clinical social worker, is a graduate of New Directions, a writing program offered by the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in Lilith, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and the narrative medicine websites Pulse and KevinMD. Of herself, she says, “I write to make sense of the world I see through the lens of a mom, a clinician, a patient, a wife, and a person just muddling through life.” Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.

You Got That from Me—and My Mother

  
Leigh and mom

Leigh & her mom circa 1976

After belting out an energetic rendition of “The Bare Necessities” recently, my 8-year-old daughter Molly asked me, “Where do I get my love of music from?”

I’ll admit, I greedily credited my side of our family. After all, my Jewish grandmother was a piano teacher who played beautifully. I have lovely memories of being about 8 myself and dancing in her living room as she played tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins. Then there’s my Irish grandfather who played the accordion and sang with a lilting brogue. They passed along their love of music (if not their talent) to me, and now I’m passing it along to Molly and my sons.

It got me thinking about the things we inherit from our families and how those things impact our lives. Celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, I see that my mom—and her interfaith experience—have been a big influence on how I see the world, parent, work and love.

My mom, Mary Margaret Theresa Mahoney, converted when she married my Jewish father, Paul Melvin Hurwitz in the 1960s. With Irish immigrant parents, she grew up immersed in Catholicism but had lost her faith by her late teens. She was happy to convert if it meant marrying my father: a dashing, intellectual Navy pilot. It didn’t really matter to my father, but his family would never have accepted the two as a couple if my mom didn’t convert.

When my brother and I were born, it was my mom who took charge of our Jewish education, which is both ironic and quite common as women often drive their household’s religion—even if it’s not the religion they grew up in. She drove us to and from Hebrew school every week and organized my bat mitzvah. She planned and implemented our Jewish holiday celebrations at Hanukkah, Passover, etc. Looking back, she worked hard to raise us Jewishly.

I think because of her interfaith experience, she has always been an advocate for people who feel excluded or marginalized. She taught me the importance of making people feel welcome, accepted and important.

That lesson extended beyond our family to the larger world. My mom worked with children and adults with special needs and often invited them to our home for holidays. We were always encouraged to reach out to lonely or ostracized classmates and neighborhood kids.

My mother was also an important feminist role model. When I was in kindergarten in Iceland (my dad was stationed there), she started a Women’s Consciousness Raising Group. When we moved to San Francisco a few years later, she went to grad school and I remember her typing papers late into the night at our dining room table. She had cool hippy friends who were artists and writers. She worked (when many Navy wives didn’t) and she and my dad split household chores. My dad cooked dinner most nights.

I grew up with the expectation that I, too, would study and work and be an equal partner in my relationships. These are all lessons that I am teaching my own children.

Leigh and kids

Leigh with her children

Often, I see my mom and dad in my children—in the way they interact with their siblings or tell a story or write an essay for school. And I wonder, what about me will my children pass along to their kids? The thought actually reminds me to live more mindfully—because I know my kids are watching, the same way I was 40 years ago. It’ll also motivate me to sing more often—and energetically.