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.

How a Symbol Proved to Me that Love Always Wins

  

Mezuzah touch and kiss.

By Debra Lipenta

I, like many people, was deeply shaken after the results of the presidential election. After feeling so hopeful and then having that hope shattered, I really struggled internally. I feared the recent divisive and hateful rhetoric might take our nation and our communities back to a less accepting, less safe time. When I saw the first evidence of this — the news that someone had spray-painted hateful messages and swastikas in my own neighborhood — I was horrified.

A swastika is just a symbol. It’s a small visible representation of something much larger: pure hate. Hate to the point of mass murder. Mass murder of my people. The symbol itself should not be able to hurt me, but it does. Each time I see a swastika, it elicits a strong, visceral reaction from deep inside me. I was inconsolable at the thought that this kind of hate still exists, and so close to my own home.

I’m grateful to have a loving, supportive and thoughtful partner, John. Though he is not Jewish, John saw and understood the pain that the swastikas had caused me. We had recently moved into the neighborhood together, our first home. When I called him, distraught, his reaction, unprompted and immediate, was, “We’re going to hang up our mezuzah tonight.”

A mezuzah is just a symbol. Yes, it holds a blessing for a home and to hang one is a mitzvah, but it’s also a symbol that, by its very presence, says, “A Jewish person lives here.” It is a mark of solidarity among the Jewish community, and it does not hide in the face of hate. We, John and I, would not hide in the face of hate. In this seemingly small gesture, John reassured me of my safety and his solidarity. It was both an outward-facing sign to our community, and a personal act of support for me. It meant more to me than he ever could have known.

We hung our mezuzah that evening, he with the hammer while I said the blessing. For me, it is now also a symbol of his love, and I can find comfort and hope knowing that love always wins.

I Chose to Be Jewish. This is Why

  

By Tamara ReeseWomen_Support

When my family moved to Pittsburgh, my son was 10 weeks old and my husband was entering into a grueling six-year medical residency. Though we’re not Orthodox, he found us an apartment smack dab in the middle of the eruva ritual enclosure some Jewish communities use to allow residents to carry certain objects on Shabbat and holidays, which would otherwise be forbidden. He was hoping that by surrounding ourselves with Jews, I would feel supported in living a Jewish life.

Judaism is my chosen faith. While the conversion process was long and intimidating, it is not nearly as intimidating as raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. My husband grew up a secular Jew and his mother has since passed, so there has never been anyone to show me the ways of brisket braising and Hebrew prayers. And while I studied prayer books and cookbooks, blogs, and literature about how to build a Jewish home, I prayed every night that someone would take my hand and show me the way.

Our first week here we attended a family Shabbat service. I sat in the lobby hushing my fussy newborn and I noticed another woman chasing her 18-month-old daughter through the coat racks. She smiled at me and asked if we were new to the area. Turns out her husband was also in medicine and they were Pittsburgh “transplants” as many call it: people who come here for a job—usually away from family and friends—and end up staying because they love the city.

We developed a friendship and her family invited us to Shabbat dinners, Passover seders and birthday parties. Five weeks after our first meeting, she babysat my not-bottle-taking newborn so that I could have a minor surgical procedure. Two years later, she rushed over to my house when I was in labor with our second son, scooped up my toddler, and grabbed a laundry basket like it was her own home, allowing me to focus on getting to the hospital.

My friend was also a convert and I looked up to her greatly. I admired the Jewish art on her walls and her collection of menorahs. I watched her cook, pray, and mother her Jewish children. I was inspired and hopeful that I could execute Judaism just as effortlessly one day.

Mothering unites us as Jewish women.

*

As a child, I sang almost before I could speak. I truly believe that it was a gift God bestowed upon me to share with the world. As an adult, I remember walking into my first Shabbat service and hearing the music. So beautiful and so… foreign to me. I wanted nothing more than to find familiarity in that sound. The sound of Jewish music.

After living in Pittsburgh for about two years, I met a woman at the park one day. Our children were very close in age and she and I were equally nine months pregnant. We got to talking about life, about ourselves. We were both Jewish and both in a local MOMs club chapter but had never met. She told me in passing that she and her sister sang in an a capella group and I should come sing for them sometime.

I did and was welcomed into this group, Kol Shira, to sing Jewish music alongside nine other Jewish women, each of us differing in our level of observance but all equally Jewish in the eyes of one another. Through a chance meeting at the park, Jewish song became part of my everyday life—learning it, hearing it, and singing for my children.

Song unites us as Jewish women.

*

When we welcomed my daughter into the Jewish community, Kol Shira filled the chapel with beautiful music in her honor. And when I gave birth to my fourth child two months ago, these same women hosted the most thoughtful brit milah (ritual circumcision). They walked into my living room that morning and let me cry on their shoulder; they hugged my children; they held my baby; and they brought beautiful food and décor, set it up, served it, and cleaned up every last bit, leaving leftovers in the fridge for my family. These Jewish mothers held my hand because they remembered being the one shaking and sobbing on their son’s eighth day of life.

That morning when we welcomed my beautiful boy into the Jewish community, my home was filled with people—only one of them was related to us by blood. My friends, this community of women, took the all too familiar weight of that day off of my shoulders and spread it around each other and I am forever grateful.

Tradition unites us as Jewish women.

*

A few years ago, we sang at the Chabad Women’s Convention that was held in Pittsburgh. The message of the conference was “sharing your light” by encouraging other women in their own Judaism. When I think of all of the women who have shared their light with me these past six years in Pittsburgh, I am overcome with emotion. Each one gave me little drops of Judaism, and from those drops my cup runs deep. Just by surrounding myself with women who embrace each other and their faith so effortlessly, I’ve become more modest, more generous, more accepting, and more capable. They have inspired me not only to be a better Jewish mother, wife, and teacher, but showed me how I can share my light.

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.

Blogger Tamara ReeseTamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller and her work has been published in academic journals, La Leche League USA, Brain, Child Magazine and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two boys and ginger-baby daughter. Her passions include child injury prevention, gentle parenting, and breastfeeding advocacy. #YouAreAGoodMama

Assisted Living Upgrade

  

By Joy Fields

Women laughing

When my fiercely independent mother recently suffered myriad health issues, it was clear she could no longer live alone. My husband and I were faced with finding an assisted living facility that would address all her health needs, but provide her with a comfortable social atmosphere that would keep her mentally healthy as well. We had to add to the decision making mix her being very active in Houston’s Jewish community—an area of town a 45 minute drive from us. Without traffic. When’s that?

Mom had been a five- to ten-minute bus ride from two Reform temples, two Conservative temples and a “Sephardic” temple, which made her raise her eyebrows but had the best onegs (post service desserts). There were also Orthodox temples and a Lubavitch Center but really, darling, who needs to be that religious? Friends accompanied her to the nearby Jewish Community Center for occasional classes, artistic performances and lunch seminars where, to be honest, she couldn’t quite understand the rebbe, but the lox was fantastic. She sang in two choirs and led karaoke as a volunteer at a Jewish nursing home.

Our suburb has one temple that services every denomination within a thirty mile radius. Over half the families are interfaith and there are many from a plethora of backgrounds who converted. The shul is open most Friday nights, plus Sunday and Wednesday evenings for classes. No choir. No cantor. The rabbi sings slightly off-tune but can be drowned out pretty easily.

The grocery store next to Mom’s apartment complex had every imaginable kosher-for-Passover item on display a month before the holidays. She could get up early in the morning and stock up on pesadich borscht before the masses completely bought it out (kosher for Passover beet soup—really, not something anyone need to know about). She could buy enough garlic/onion Tam Tams to provide snacks for twenty friends. Don’t worry darling, those never go bad. Sometimes she’d pull out a box in September and offer you one to prove that point.

Our suburban grocery stores usually remember to order multipacks of plain white matzah. They also carry gefilte fish in the “ethnic aisle” between the hoisin sauce and the frijoles. Not sure why.

My husband and I both work full time and were already exhausted from our numerous commutes to her hospital room near her old digs. We knew that if Mom were closer to us, we’d be able to visit more regularly and address her emergency issues (like bottle tops being screwed on too tightly, running out of pennies before the Bingo tournament or the prescription caddy spilling, which seems a higher priority to me).

So after a whirlwind of Internet searching and facility touring, we found a great place near us. In an ethnically diverse environment that would expose her to cultural richness from all over the world, but no JCC.

It’s a safe but affordable studio, with three daily meals served in a high ceilinged, brightly lit room on white linen and china, where she can be seated with friendly residents. Snacks available 24/7. Van transportation for appointments, organized outings and “WallyWorld Wednesdays.” On-site therapists, nurses, aids, beauticians and an activities director that would put The Love Boat staff to shame. There was even a sing-along group. We showed Mom the “Standard Favorites” song list. She could later ease in to gospel night.

At first Mom was very apprehensive, but realizing she would not be able to care for herself and not wanting to move in with us, she agreed to try it out. We addressed her dietary concerns: There were substitute menu items for pork chop night. She could politely decline bacon at breakfast. The activities director would introduce her around to residents who had similar interests to sit with. We explained showing silent respect to anyone blessing their meal according to their custom, without being expected to join in. No one would force her to cross herself. Or eat the crunchy white part of the lettuce that she hates.

We arranged all of her furniture that would fit as closely as possible to her previous apartment layout. Her prayer books and song books were on the most easy to reach bookcase shelf. Her Jewish community newspaper would arrive in her new mailbox. As, of course, would the TV guide. (This may not have religious significance to you, but to the retired, it’s universally sacred.)

We hung her family photos and set out her knick-knacks. Her “Shalom Y’all” and “Keep Calm and Kosher On” magnets were on her mini-fridge. Her candle holders and hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) were displayed on a top shelf. No way were we giving her matches…um, facility rules. We affixed a magnet to her mezuzah so it would hang on her door frame.

This turned out to be a conversation starter with residents taking a walker break in front of her door. She loved explaining what that “thing” was, and what was on the scroll inside it. Several of her neighbors had short term memory problems so she could explain it again the next day. And they could share background on their religious articles with her. Repeatedly.

We set out a large calendar and several pens so she could keep track of appointments. We set out her address book, because who needs to type all those numbers into your phone when you can just look it up? We pointed out the cords for emergency help, there, there and there. We clarified the definition of “emergency.”

We stocked her mini-fridge with healthy snacks, and were encouraged to later find her checking labels for non-vegetarian ingredients to make sure she could share with her new Hindu neighbor across the hall.

Very quickly, we were assured her transition was going smoothly. I picked up a prescription for her on my way home from work, and signed in to the reception area. One of Mom’s new lunch partners shuffled by and winked at me, adding, “Oh, aren’t you a mensch!  But I think she’s about to say ganug on the meds already.” (Yiddish for “good person” and “enough.”)

I pressed the elevator button. The door swung open and there was Mom, practically running me down with her walker. “Hi Mom, I got your medication.”

“Oh, thanks, doll. Just put it up in my room. They’re having a wine and cheese party in the activity room and I don’t want to be late.”

Praised be the maker of the fruit of the vine.