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ByÂ 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 planâ€”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 Iâ€™ve belonged to a synagogue since attending with my family as a child. And, itâ€™s the first time my husband has belonged ever since, well, heâ€™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, itâ€™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, weâ€™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 didnâ€™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 connectionâ€” 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 â€śMensch of the Weekâ€ť column and during one interview, I learned about our Reform synagogueâ€™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.
Iâ€™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 didnâ€™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, thatâ€™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 Iâ€™m active, so now Iâ€™m trying to figure out if and how to get involved. Maybe Sisterhood, maybe volunteering in some capacity. Maybe next year.
For now, Iâ€™m enjoying bumping into friends at Sunday school drop-off and reflecting on those peaceful moments I had during the holidays.
On March 22, 2016, I completed a journey many years in the making when I sat before a beit din (rabbinical court), immersed myself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath), and converted to Judaism. It felt as if my soul had finally found the home it had been searching for my whole life. In Judaism, I found a sense of community I longed for, and so much comfort in the rituals of our thousands-of-years-old tradition. I also gained a new sense of responsibility as a Jew: to do my part to repair our world.Â It is a day I will always remember as one of the most powerful and meaningful days of my life.
My journey to Judaism started long before I met my now-husband Bryan, but my interest in it deepened because of him and his Jewish heritage. Iâ€™ve always been interested in learning about my Japanese heritage, so when Bryan and I started discussing our future together, I was quietly interested in conversion early on. Since I was not raised in a particular religion, I felt fortunate for the gift of choice given to me by both my parents. Iâ€™m grateful that they also fell in love with Bryan and supported my decision to convert wholeheartedly from the beginning. But that doesnâ€™t mean the process was easy by any means.
After years of attending Jewish holiday gatherings at friendsâ€™ homes, Introduction to Judaism courses at our temple, countless meetings with my guide rabbi, Hebrew classes at the JCC, building Jewish community at our Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el, regularly attending Shabbat services, reading Jewish books and cooking Jewish recipes, one would think that I would finally be ready.
There was just one problem: I was afraid that there wasn’t enough space within me to take on being Jewish. I felt I was barely holding onto my Japanese heritage. I had spent my entire life tightly gripping the few parts of my heritage that were left for me. My dadâ€™s generation had lived through being Japanese-American in Hawaii during and after World War II, and they had to assimilate as quickly as possible if they were to keep their families safe and rebuild their lives here. Though my Mom is from Japan, she quickly learned the importance of assimilation as well. So much of my heritage was lost before I came into the world. The same can be said for Bryanâ€™s Jewish heritage.
Luckily (though it did not feel so lucky on those early Saturday mornings), I grew up going to Japanese school and spending summers in Japan. But Saturday school and Japanese relatives donâ€™t teach you how to navigate being Japanese-American in America. Iâ€™ve spent most of my life feeling painfully in between: Not behaving quite Japanese enough in Japan and not looking American enough in the US. To top that off, Iâ€™ve often felt the pressure of being the last â€ślinkâ€ť to the Japanese part of my family. I was hanging onto my complicated Japanese American heritage by a string. I worried that by adding Judaism to the mix I would lose it all, and my heart ached for my ancestors and for future generations of my family.
This is how I ended up in my guide rabbiâ€™s office sobbing. I told him I wasnâ€™t ready and that I didnâ€™t think I could do it anymore. To which he responded, â€śYouâ€™re ready.â€ť I was completely baffled, but he continued by asking me if I had ever considered that there was space for everything? I hadnâ€™t. And that simple change of perspective was exactly what I needed to hear. I walked into his office only being able to see two options: Holding on to my Japanese heritage or letting go of it to be Jewish. Thankfully, he helped me to see there was a third choice: What if there was enough space for everything?
The funny thing is, now I have a company called Nourish that does exactly that: We help people define their cultural narrative, on their own terms. Iâ€™m not just Japanese. Iâ€™m not just Jewish. Iâ€™m not just American. Iâ€™m a Japanese-American Jew. While itâ€™s complex, I have even more opportunities to celebrate who I am, and more opportunities to reinterpret my heritages in ways that help me connect more deeply. I may still use chopsticks incorrectly and unpack some takeout before lighting candles on Shabbat sometimes, but never have I felt so connected and nourished by my Japanese and Jewish traditions. Iâ€™d like to think thatâ€™s all our ancestors could have wanted for us, anyway.
Next spring, I will celebrate my bat mizvah at the same temple where Bryan and I were married. In a few weeks, I will travel to Japan to study my heritage. In some ways, I feel I am reclaiming the lost parts of my Jewish and Japanese heritage and now thereâ€™s plenty of room for both.
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.