Pam Chernoff has just moved from Pinole, Calif., to Tarrytown, N.Y., with her husband, Joel, and their amazing 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sarah, whom they adopted 10 months after they lost their twins. Pam is a part-time stay-at-home mom and a part-time project director at the National Center for Employee Ownership.
At Last Becoming a Parent, with the Support of My Congregation
Five years ago, at the end of erev Rosh Hashanah services, a recent Bat Mitzvah turned to me, thrust out her hand, and said “L'shana tova.” My inner teenager shrieked, “You've been found out!” As if anyone at the Marin Civic Center would have been surprised to learn that there was a non-Jew in attendance. But it was the first Jewish worship service I'd ever attended, I was there with a boyfriend I hadn't been dating for very long, and I felt supremely self-conscious.
Less than two years later, I attended my first Jewish wedding. I was the bride.
When Joel and I started dating, we had a lot of issues to negotiate. We were co-workers. We lived 1,800 miles apart, me in Chicago, Joel in California. We have a twelve-year age gap, and are of different religions. And that wasn't even the difficult stuff. We knew we'd be serious or be nothing. As Joel says, we weren't just in it for the frequent flier miles. Because of that, we talked seriously early on. Religion was on the checklist right after children. It took us awhile to figure out what was negotiable and what wasn't in terms of how we would raise a family. For me, it came down to needing my children to learn about God--that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exists. That ruled out Unitarianism and Ethical Culture, where Joel had been active in earlier years.
After we had started talking, but before we had decided what to do, I sat at services in my Methodist church one Sunday morning, and suddenly knew I could agree to raise our children as Jews. That it hit me there, in space that was sacred to me, was important. It was a moment of Grace.
Once we were married, our focus turned to figuring out how to build our family's religious life. By the time Joel and I crossed the threshold of Beth Hillel about a year after our wedding, we knew we were looking for a congregation that would be our community as a family--we knew that I would take part in the religious life of a synagogue even though I would look for a Methodist church I could attend when I felt the need to. We had been to interfaith programs that had helped immensely in my struggle to figure out how I could be my definitively Christian self in a Jewish community. It helped us talk things through and work things out together, but even more importantly, from my point of view, it helped me work out how to be myself, yet still be an active, enthusiastic, respectful, engaged participant in Jewish community. The worship part was no problem. But I needed some help to go from the woman who blanched at being wished a good new year to someone who is comfortable saying “This is who I am, I'm different, and boy am I happy I'm here.”
The first time we attended services at Beth Hillel, Dawn Kepler, the interfaith coordinator for the East Bay, set us up with a buddy, Dana Meyer, so that we'd know someone at services. That got us in the door, but it turned out it wasn't really necessary. We stayed for a long time after services as person after person came up to introduce themselves and talk to us. We felt comfortable, and included, and welcomed. All of the things we were looking for. We made a perfunctory attempt at synagogue shopping, but we knew we'd found the right place.
We joined Beth Hillel a year and a half ago. Three months later, I attended my first Jewish memorial service. It was for our stillborn twin sons.
It was then that Beth Hillel showed its heart. People came, they brought food, they brought books that had helped them, they shared their own stories of loss. They said Kaddish. They fed us soup. They called to see how we were doing. They sent cards. They asked how we were doing months later. At a horrible time, we felt comforted by community.
On a bad day this spring, I came to a Jewgrass service with my flute, knowing that by the second line of the Mi shebeirach I would be a puddly, sniffly mess. Another pregnancy test had been negative, and I was sad. I wanted to be a mother, and I wanted my sons to be alive. I have always hated crying in front of people, but I was determined to sit in the band and play my flute. And it is a testament to how comfortable I feel here that I was willing to play and cry, and didn't mind that everyone could see me. I needed to grieve and worship where I was most at home--right here.
Not long after that, we got the name of a pregnant high school senior who was looking for adoptive parents for her baby. Two months ago, I attended my first baby naming. It was for my daughter. People here cheered for us. And every time we bring Sarah here, I am awed by the love that surrounds her. This isn't just the kind of community I want for my daughter, this is the community I want for her.
So here I stand. The wife of a Jewish man. The mother of a Jewish daughter. A Christian who knows she is hugely blessed to have been embraced by this extraordinarily special Jewish community. Thank you all. Shana tova.