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Finding the Right Fit

March 10, 2010

My earliest Jewish memories include treasured times spent at my family's synagogue. In the temple's preschool, I modeled a Baby Moses out of clay while learning the story of Passover. At family services, I sat on my dad's lap as I clapped and sang songs, and at the temple rummage sale, I helped my mom to raise money and give back to the community.

I continued my involvement with our temple as I started Hebrew school. I remember when my bottle-cap-and-clay menorah won first-prize in the synagogue's menorah-creating contest. I recall bringing my cabbage patch kid to the temple for a dolls' baby naming ceremony, which was coordinated for us tikes by the rabbi. I remember gabbing with my best friend during Friday night services and (whoops!) getting in trouble for our chatter, eating falafel in celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and solemnly learning about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). I also remember being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, my parents and grandparents beaming at me from their seats.

As I grew older, my involvement with our temple continued to shape me. In the temple youth group, I assumed my first leadership roles as part of the youth group council. During college, returning home for High Holy Day services allowed me to re-connect with dear friends who were also away at school. Even as a parent, I returned to my childhood synagogue to hold our daughter's baby naming service.

Being part of a synagogue community exposed me to so many rich Jewish experiences and developed within me a core connection to Judaism, Israel and Jewish values. I always knew that I would want to join a temple with my own family someday, and about a year ago, my husband John and I decided it was the right time for us to begin an affiliation with a synagogue near our home. With the approaching birth of our son, we wanted to select a temple at which to hold the bris. Moreover, with our daughter Olivia approaching preschool age, we felt that joining a temple would reinforce the Jewish lessons and traditions that we were teaching within our home.

However, in choosing a synagogue for our family, there was a unique element to consider: My husband John was raised Catholic, so it was imperative for us to select a temple that would be welcoming to our family. Although John had not converted to Judaism, we had decided that we would bring our children up in the Jewish religion. We wanted to find a temple that would fully welcome John, allowing him to stand with us at the bema and comfortably attend temple events. We also wanted a temple at which our children could feel proud of their family while building a lifelong love of Judaism.

As our son's due date drew near, I began to research synagogues in our Manhattan neighborhood. On my research list was Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue near our apartment. When I entered Temple Israel to find out more about it, I was warmly greeted by the temple staff and introduced to one of the rabbis with whom I had an opportunity to talk. I reviewed the literature on the temple's programming: Tot Shabbats in Central Park, ShabbatLive concerts with visiting musicians, and regular adult education classes with the clergy--a vibrant array of programs and also reminiscent of the colorful programs I experienced in my synagogue growing up. Even more importantly, from meeting clergy, staff, and temple members, I felt from the start that this temple would be welcoming to our family.

Prior to joining the temple as members, we held our son Alex's bris there. In planning the bris, the Rabbi spoke with me to understand more about Alex's Hebrew name and the family members whom he was named after. The office staff prepared a lovely program for the service that explained the meaning of the bris and included prayers to be said for our new baby boy.

We soon became increasingly involved in temple life. We attended Tot Shabbat services with the kids and met families who were already members, and I attended a prospective member reception to learn more. With each and every experience, it became more and more apparent that this temple was the right fit for us. We signed up as members and this past Fall experienced our first High Holy Day service there.

Most recently, a couple from the temple hosted a new member Shabbat dinner in their home. This warm-hearted event further reinforced that this was where our family belonged. The dinner was attended by new members, the rabbi, cantor, and their spouses. At the beginning of the event, the rabbi asked each of us to introduce ourselves to the group and speak a little about our Jewish journey. What was our background? How did we come to be a member of the temple? What had been some of our pivotal Jewish memories? I could see John shuffling uneasily in his seat, as I'm sure he was wondering: "Umm, what do I say when it is my turn to speak? I'm not Jewish so how do I define my Jewish journey exactly?"

Well, one by one, the attendees began to introduce themselves and before we knew it, both John and I realized that no one's journey was particularly straightforward. In the room with us, there were other non-Jews who had married Jews, there were Jews-by-choice and Jews-by-birth. There were New York Jews and Israeli Jews and Jews from other locations throughout the Diaspora. There were people of all different generations and at various stages in their spiritual lives. And so when it came time for John to introduce himself, I could see that he was no longer uncomfortable but rather felt completely embraced by our new community--a community in which we are proud and excited to be a part.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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 "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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Melissa Desjardins

Melissa Desjardins lives in Manhattan with her husband John and their children, Olivia Rose and Alex Michael. Melissa works as a senior consultant for an information technology consulting firm and recently graduated from New York University with her Master's Degree in Business Administration.

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