Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Her most recent book is 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), a collection of Torah poems.
Finding a Home
Originally published September 2003.
It baffled my parents that for the first few years we were married, and for the years we dated before that, I went with my husband and his family to Christmas Eve services, but he didn't accompany me to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. "That doesn't seem fair," my mother pointed out. "You're celebrating his holiday, but he's not celebrating yours."
We hold to my parents' tradition of a festive erev (eve of) Rosh Hashanah meal, complete with white tablecloth, fancy china, and ritual foods (wine, challah, apples and honey) to bless, and I reminded her of that. Synagogue or no, we were welcoming the Jewish New Year together in our home. So she tried another tack. "Wouldn't he go with you if you asked?"
The answer, of course, was yes; but I didn't want to ask. I think that was the baffling part. My reasons were inchoate at best, but they boiled down to feeling that I wanted his engagement with Judaism to be his choice, not because he felt obligated to my family, my tradition, or me. Besides, my Rosh Hashanah observance was pretty variable. I had tried one synagogue, then another. I went back to the Jewish student center at my undergraduate alma mater. One year I barely went to shul at all, spending the day outside instead, reading poems and prayers alone under the trees. It was easy to include my husband in the home-based rituals I felt grounded in, but synagogue attendance was another thing entirely. How could I help him feel welcome in a congregation if I didn't belong anywhere myself?
Year after year, the synagogue portion of Rosh Hashanah got more and more frustrating. I cut my attendance shorter and shorter, wanting to escape so I could do my homegrown tashlich ritual (in which one symbolically casts away the previous year's mistakes, in the form of bread crumbs into a river) with my friends. The nadir was the year I tried the temple nearest our house, got stuck in the upper balcony of the sanctuary, and didn't know a soul.
My resolution that High Holy Day season? To find a congregational home by the following fall. I've lived in this cluster of small towns for almost a decade: people know me on the street, at the grocery store, at the community-supported organic farm. It felt wrong to be so rootless when it came to religion.
So I drove around. I sampled the area options: Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform. I liked the idea of attending services in the town where both my husband and I work, so I went to lunch with the rabbi there. I liked him immediately, but was nervous about explaining our situation: I still remembered our wedding-officiant search, when rabbis hadn't always been kind.
It turned out that the rabbi had written his rabbinic thesis on intermarriage. That one of the congregation's co-presidents is married to a Christian man. And that the congregation, although small (many Friday nights we have to skip the prayers that require a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews needed to read from the Torah), is welcoming and friendly. They use a siddur, or prayer book, and a machzor, a High Holiday prayer book, that they compiled themselves: a fair amount of Hebrew, and a lot of singing, but also excellent translations and transliterations. They're user-friendly.
I started going to Shabbat, Sabbath, services there, maybe once a month. And as Rosh Hashanah approached, my husband asked, casually, whether I wanted company that year.
The congregation's new building was under construction, so we met to worship in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn downtown. Several people shook our hands as we walked in, and greeted us by name. My resolution had worked: I wasn't a stranger anymore.
We ducked out shortly before the end, and stopped for lunch together on the way home. He allowed as to how the rabbi seemed smart, the people seemed friendly, the liturgy wasn't impenetrable, and he might go with me once in a blue moon.
Maybe the best part was the follow-up letter we got from the membership chairwoman, who had noticed us in the crowd. The synagogue's standard membership form includes room for two adults' names, birthdays, and religious affiliations. Even as a non-Jew, my husband is welcome to be a member; when we join, both of our names will appear on the roster. It's a far cry from the shul of my childhood, where at my Bat Mitzvah my sister-in-law (then in the midst of her conversion process) was denied the chance at an aliyah (honor of being called up to read from the Torah) because she "wasn't Jewish yet."
I doubt my husband will ever choose to consider himself Jewish, and I suspect I will always find special resonance in the home-based rituals we celebrate together with our circle of family and friends. Still, there's something wonderful about finding a Jewish community we can belong to, without changing or hiding who we are.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "synagogue."