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.

How to Pick an Interfaith-Friendly Synagogue

  

By Jordyn Rozensky

Couple terapy

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.  His first step was to clear Sundays on his calendar—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 you’re thinking about membership. His advice:

“Folks should set their first visit in accordance 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 visit—too much potential for alienation. 

 If they are looking for religious school, go to the education director. 

 If they are looking for fellowship, contacting the membership committee, the sisterhood or the executive director is a good start. 

 If the rabbi is really important, make a meeting. “

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. You’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 you—such as how a synagogue embraces social justice or the environmental policies of the synagogue.

Disability accessibility:

  • How have you welcomed families with disabilities in the past?
  • Are your facilities accessible for folks with disabilities? Is there access to the bima for those with mobility issues (i.e.: folks with a walker, cane or wheelchair)? Do you have large-print prayer books?
  • Are people with disabilities active participants on committees, the board, sisterhood and men’s club, in all programs and services, and on the staff?
  • Are children with disabilities welcome in the religious school? Are there bar/bat mitzvah tutors who work with students with disabilities?

 

Interfaith inclusion:

  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be fully welcome? How have you welcomed interfaith families in the past?
  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be allowed on the bima during our child’s bar mitzvah?
  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be a welcome addition to the synagogue during events or services that I cannot attend?
  • Is religious school held on Easter (or other holidays that are part of another faith) and will accommodations be made if my child needs to miss school that day?

 

LGBTQ Inclusion:

  • How is your community inclusive for LGBTQ folks?
  • Do your membership forms utilize inclusive language?
  • Do you celebrate LGBTQ Jewish heroes in your religious school? Has your rabbi spoken about LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance during sermons?
  • Do you provide safe and gender-neutral spaces and bathrooms?
  • Are there active and out LGBTQ families regularly attending services?

 

We also came up with a list of questions that needed to be answered that touched on more of the tachlis or details:

  • What are the dues? Do you offer assistance or a sliding scale for lower income families?
  • What is the dress code?
  • How often are volunteer events held? How often are community social events held?
  • Who belongs to the synagogue? Will we find others in their ’20s and ’30s?
  • Do you offer adult education programs? Are there classes in learning Hebrew or Torah study?
  • What is the schedule of services and events?

 

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.

We’re excited for our next steps: sitting down with leadership, observing a Shabbat service and imagining ourselves as active members of the synagogue.

Breast Cancer and An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

  

By Melissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret

Melissa K. Rosen SharsheretI went to Shabbat services this morning for the first time in months. My long absence wasn’t an intentional decision. In fact, I only became aware of the “decision” recently.

A cancer diagnosis affects so much more than you think it will. Of course I expected the physical challenges. And it came as no surprise when I found myself emotionally drained. What I didn’t recognize for either of my two diagnoses was the impact cancer had on my spiritual life.

Living Jewishly has been important to me since childhood. Through the years it has meant very different things, yet has always been an integral part of who I am. I grew up in a Reform temple. My husband, now a committed Jew, grew up in a Christian home. We have spent time in both Conservative and Orthodox communities. Those varied experiences have made us sensitive to both the ways we practice and our relationships with God and community.

During my first diagnosis, I instinctively turned to faith and spirituality. I went to synagogue, spoke with God, wore an amulet with Jewish text and even received a healing bracha, or blessing, from a rabbi. My community and my faith were a large part of my recovery. I drew strength from what had always been important to me.

Seventeen years later, at the time of my second diagnosis, without even realizing it, I shut down spiritually. In retrospect, it was as if a switch was flipped. I withdrew from my community. I stopped attending Shabbat services and drew little joy from holidays and Shabbat.

Navigating cancer places unique pressures not just on the patient, but on the family as well. A medical crisis can bring family together—and it can also highlight differences. In my family, with our joyful and carefully constructed religious life, changes of any type were a challenge that needed to be addressed. Were the changes I made permanent? How would they impact my family? Were they actually helping me deal with my diagnosis?

I realize now, both from the benefit of time and from the conversations I have had with other cancer survivors, that diagnosis can make a person spiritually fragile. When you are diagnosed you may look to find meaning in the experience. That may mean drawing closer to faith, changing the way your faith is expressed or turning away completely. It may be an intentional decision, or something you realize in retrospect. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I needed every ounce of strength I had to deal with my treatment. What I know now, healthy and long past treatment, is that my life is missing something.

Jewish observance and commitment has always been an active conversation in my home, so I’m not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that I’m aware of what I have lost, I have made myself a promise to fight my way back to something that has always brought me joy and comfort. I’m not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!

Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain,” is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stage—before, during and after diagnosis.

If you are interested in learning more, or would like to run a Sharsheret Pink Shabbat®  to raise breast cancer awareness in your community, you can contact the author at mrosen@sharsheret.org.

Judaism Without Walls

  

By Jared David Berezin

Jared wedding

Jared and his (now) wife Laurie being married by Rabbi Lev Baesh on Laurie’s parents’ farm in Pennsylvania

Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:

Jared's questions 1Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.

Re-Discovering Judaism

My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.

Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.

Shul Shopping

I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:

  • What am I learning in these services? What am I feeling?
  • What do I want my wife to experience? What do I want to experience?
  • What do I gain from the rituals and prayers in the synagogue?
  • What values are expressed in the services by the rabbi?
  • What values are expressed in the services by the congregants?

 

After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”

My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.

Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.

Finding a Meaningful Practice

Jared and Laurie

Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.

As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.

While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:

  • What values underlie traditional Jewish congregational behavior?
  • What values do we see in secular organizations?
  • How do Jewish and secular experiences intersect in our lives?
  • Before we seek to inspire others, are we keeping ourselves inspired?