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By Liat Katz
â€śA Y A M,â€ť She writes.
â€śUm, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,â€ť I respond.
â€śNope, itâ€™s just in Hebrew,â€ť the 6-year-old says.
Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogueâ€™s Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And sheâ€™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 girlâ€™s naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. Iâ€™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 communityâ€”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 familyâ€”Reconstructionist. We went to a few services and kidsâ€™ 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 wasnâ€™t what I wanted. Why didnâ€™t I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversityâ€¦but I realized it wasnâ€™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 moreâ€¦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 wouldnâ€™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 Schoolâ€”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 Arianâ€™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 sandwichâ€”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 daughtersâ€™ questions like: Why donâ€™t we have aâ€¦Christmas tree?â€¦a daddy?â€¦a beach house? they now, also ask me:â€śWhy donâ€™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, â€śReflections on Ten Years ofÂ LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaismâ€ť 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: â€śThe 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?â€ť
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, â€śI 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.â€ť Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.
By Jordyn Rozensky
When I asked my partner who is not Jewish if we could start visiting synagogues in hopes of finding a formal Jewish home for our worship and community, he agreed immediately. Â His first step was to clear Sundays on his calendarâ€”until I reminded him that while church meets on Sundays, Shabbat services are Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the Jewish community.
We started our search with Reform synagogues within a 20-30 minute drive. We wanted a synagogue with leadership that included women, whether in the form of a rabbi, cantor, executive director or board, and we were hoping for a community where a young(ish) couple like ourselves could find community.
I turned to a rabbi friend of mine to ask how to visit a new synagogue when youâ€™re thinking about membership. His advice:
â€śFolks should set their first visit inÂ accordanceÂ to what they think they will use as members. If they don’t plan on going to Shabbat services regularly, going to Shabbat services is not a great first visitâ€”too much potential for alienation.Â
Â If they are looking forÂ religiousÂ school, go to the education director.Â
Â If they are looking for fellowship, contacting the membership committee, the sisterhood or the executive director is a good start.Â
Â If the rabbi is really important, make a meeting.Â â€ś
Still a bit overwhelmed with the idea of setting up meetings, we began our research at home with a list of values we needed in a Jewish setting. Well aware that this was just the tip of the iceberg, we placed disability accessibility and inclusion, LGBTQ equality and inclusion, and the full welcoming of interfaith families at the top of the list.
Knowing that inclusion and equality is more than a yes or no answer, we put together a list of questions for the synagogue. Youâ€™re welcome to use the questions in your own search for a synagogue, but I also encourage you to think beyond these questions and identify issues that may be important to youâ€”such as how a synagogue embraces social justice or the environmental policies of the synagogue.
We also came up with a list of questions that needed to be answered that touched on more of the tachlis or details:
Armed with these questions and a better idea of what we were looking for, we were ready to start our search. From here we found several synagogues in driving distance of our home that appeared to share our values.
Weâ€™re excited for our next steps: sitting down with leadership, observing a Shabbat service and imagining ourselves as active members of the synagogue.