March 5, 2010
As I craned my head to see over the mechitza, the divider separating the men from the women, I wondered what Jeff was thinking over there in the men's section. We were attending our first Rosh Hashanah service at Chabad Community Shul in Richmond, Va., where we had moved only a few months prior. Almost all other Jewish experiences with my Catholic husband of 11 years had taken place in New Mexico at Congregation Albert, a Reform synagogue. Yet, as I saw his chili pepper kippah through the plants (their mechitza is merely a row of potted houseplants), it looked like he was enjoying the rabbi 's sermon as much as I was.
We found ourselves at Chabad that morning last year for a couple of reasons, the first being that Chabad welcomes all Jews, regardless of membership, even during the High Holy Days. Recently arriving back to Richmond after a 20 year absence, I was not yet ready to affiliate with a synagogue. Although I grew up here and attended a Conservative synagogue until I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah, we plan to take our time looking for a spiritual home that is a good fit for the entire family.
When we arrived in Virginia with our two sons, a couple months still remained in the school year. I asked an old friend which preschools to consider and she replied without hesitation that I should look at Aleph Bet, the Chabad preschool. In my circle of Jewish friends in New Mexico, almost all of the children attended our synagogue's preschool or the one at the Jewish Community Center. I didn't have any experience with Chabad, aside from a few friends who occasionally attended events there. Wanting to be sure it would be a welcoming place for our mixed faith family and that Jeff wouldn't feel excluded, I called Chabad and had all my questions answered by the director of the preschool, who is also the rabbi 's wife. I was surprised to learn that other mixed faith families attend Chabad and send their children to preschool and religious school there. Thus began our introduction to this warm, friendly and family-oriented community.
Although the rabbi s and their families dress modestly and look the way you might expect them to, the average person there looks like we do. In fact, many of the people I see there are men and women who grew up with me and who attended Reform or Conservative synagogues until recent years. As we spent time at Chabad and our children became familiar with a new school setting, we found our way despite a few mishaps--such as when my son, not accustomed to wearing a kippah all day, accidentally dropped his in the toilet. Or when Jeff forgot he should not try to shake hands with a woman. We probably made a few other faux pas, but due to the graciousness of everyone there, we didn't know it and never felt uncomfortable. My sense is that the people we spoke to were more than happy to explain their traditions and any questions we had were always answered warmly.
As for Jeff, he finds Chabad to be very welcoming and "genuine," to use his word. When that Rosh Hashanah service ended and I was able to ask Jeff his opinion, he told me he had been moved by the men as they read from the Torah. As they davened, praying with their lips moving, he saw enjoyment and profound fulfillment shining from their faces. He liked that the children in the sanctuary were sometimes noisy and adults were at times chatting, but none of that distracted from the men's prayers. While in New Mexico, Jeff and I found the services more structured, with the rabbis waiting for silence before moving on and the expectation that children would be quiet, even while attending "children's services." Most touching to Jeff during Rosh Hashanah at Chabad, the rabbi came down from the bimah into the men's section and took time to quietly greet each congregant. More than just a quick "nice to see you," Jeff described the rabbi's break from praying as a sincere gesture.
At Chabad, we've only been treated with kindness, but unlike our prior Reform synagogue, which had almost as many interfaith families as completely Jewish ones, there is no acknowledgement of anything but Judaism at Chabad. This is very different than our experience in New Mexico, where we first became acquainted with Congregation Albert through their group for interfaith families, called Gateways. Interfaith families are welcomed at Congregation Albert, and while participating in Gateways, we were given the benefits of affiliation while having the opportunity to discuss many relevant issues with other mixed faith families. We were delighted by the group's facilitator, Judith, the daughter of a prior rabbi there who, almost 30 years ago, married a Chinese man who had been taught Christianity by missionaries. Gateways was a wonderful experience for us and when our time in the program came to an end, there was no question that we would become members of Congregation Albert and send our children to preschool there. Adding to what we found welcoming, the rabbi was active in the community, sitting on interfaith panels and collaborating with other synagogues, churches and even the Islamic community.
Being involved in a Reform community, both mixed faith families and the growing diversity seen in Judaism are acknowledged and issues are addressed. I was pleased to read in the Union for Reform Judaism magazine that congregations are encouraged to honor their non-Jewish members - to recognize that it's in part due to their efforts that our children attend services, religious school and events at our temples. I was proud of my former Reform congregation that is so forward-thinking as to have been among the first synagogues in the country to initiate a program such as Gateways.
"Welcoming" is a very broad term. Someone may feel welcome at one place, but not at another, despite a congregation's goal of inclusion. For some people, feeling welcomed may only come with the level of participation they are allowed. For us, at least for right now, we feel welcome at Chabad, appreciate their honesty with us and accept the limitations of what they can and cannot offer our family. As our children grow up, Jeff and I may not be as comfortable in a place where he cannot participate as fully. Just this week, I received the magazine published by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and read with interest their newly adopted principles of outreach. It is clear that as times change and intermarriages continue to occur, synagogues will evaluate their methods of inclusion and consider more outreach to interfaith families. We are fortunate to have had positive experiences from two very different models of Jewish practice and recognize that whether a congregation practices traditional Judaism or is a Reform Synagogue, does not determine how warm and welcoming it is. We look forward to continuing to explore the many options in our new hometown and are pleased that our family has many opportunities to participate in a variety of Jewish experiences.