In late March of this year, I attended a Shabbat service with a congregant at Adat Shalom, a moderately-sized Reconstructionist synagogue located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. We drove through quiet, shaded streets, much like the ones where I grew up, and Mrs. F talked idly about the flowers coming into bloom. When we reached the large parking lot, still not full though we'd arrived 45 minutes late, she pursed her lips.
"It's not usually this empty, but it's the day before Easter," she explained. "Several of our families have other obligations."
|Adat Shalom, May 2007. Photo courtesy of the congregation.
I nodded, understanding. I'd grown up Reconstructionist, after all, among Jewish kids balancing their religious education with Christian celebrations. It had happened to me, after all, as well as several people in my Sunday School class. We were an interfaith congregation, not overtly, but with enough members that it seemed like a natural way to be Jewish.
Twenty years ago, when I was approaching Hebrew-school age, my mother looked around at all of the area synagogues before finally settling on Beit Tikvah. Although Baltimore has a well-established Jewish community, Beit Tikvah was more on the outskirts, and reminded her of her hometown in Kansas. The fact that it was accepting of interfaith families certainly wasn't a hindrance either. I was never afraid to mention the Christmas tree, displayed prominently in my parents' living room window each winter, or the Easter dinners I'd spend with my father's family. Only in my late teenage years, when I was starting to consider Judaism as a serious life choice, did I begin to question my past.
Like my mother, I moved away from my childhood institutions in adulthood, and was faced with the challenge of re-establishing myself Jewishly in a new town. Naturally, when starting my synagogue search, I gravitated towards Reconstructionism. It was sort of like fitting together pieces of a puzzle.
When Mom told our rabbi back home that I was trying out Adat Shalom, she rambled off a list of people she knew who went there. Similarly, in introducing myself to the congregation that March morning, that rabbi nodded with a gleam of understanding when I mentioned my childhood shul. I suddenly had visions of the two leaders meeting up at the Chesapeake Bay Region Conference; perhaps some variation of "two Reconstructionist rabbis from Maryland walk into a bar…"
So I immediately felt guilty, because I knew that this wasn't the place for me. I'd already, in fact, picked my place out, and just officially joined in August: Congregation Adas Israel, a Conservative shul in the heart of Washington, D.C.
Adas Israel is about as different from Beit Tikvah as two non-Orthodox synagogues can be. Beit Tikvah defines what I've come to accept as representing my adolescent Jewish experience: unconventional and out of the mainstream.
Beit Tikvah was founded in 1985 by a group of people, all in interfaith relationships, who met at science fiction conventions. For several years, the congregation rented space from The First Christian Church; it now officially co-owns the building, and boasts 100 families as members. Though Baltimore's Jewish community is mostly located in a suburb called Pikesville, my synagogue was set apart.
Adas Israel is far different; it is the cornerstone of Washington, D.C.'s Jewish life. Founded in 1876 as a more traditional counterpart to the district's first (Reform) synagogue, it now hosts one of the largest Jewish memberships in the area. It offers a variety of programming to a disparate clientele, from a thriving Hebrew school to youth and young professional groups to adult education and activities for seniors. Where Beit Tikvah prides itself on not being "your grandfather's shul," Adas Israel boasts both diversity and tradition.
So in essence, Adas Israel represents what I want my adulthood to become: large, Jewish, and proud. I remember one of the first services I attended there; it was the reading of the Purim Megillah. Hundreds of people gathered into the large sanctuary, people of all ages wearing outlandish costumes, chatting merrily, holding groggers. The service was led by a duck, and the Megillah was chanted by Spiderman and Mr. Incredible. The contemporary Purim spiel, a re-telling of the biblical tale, spoofed local flavor--Capitol Hill and American politics.
The synagogue was so full that I was pressed against the bodies of young professionals my own age. I was entranced. I felt enveloped by Jewish tradition, and utterly connected in a way I'd not experienced since my trip to Israel in 2004. I later told my mother about it in gripping detail, which left her bemused. She never held much stock by Purim, calling it "a children's holiday." We attended once at Beit Tikvah when I was in college and left without speaking to anybody.
Still, there are some things I think I'll miss about Beit Tikvah. For example, I liked the heavy focus on contemporary issues, especially gay rights, and it was good seeing a majority of women wearing religious garb traditionally reserved for men, and of course, feeling like one of the crowd with my interfaith family. Adas Israel does offer adult education courses geared towards those of us with "mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry," but it doesn't sound the same as my childhood experiences. It almost sounds like they're singling out the thing that makes me different, even an outsider. Or maybe I'm just nervous about making a change.
But I face the new Jewish year with excitement and anticipation. I hope that I may embrace all that Adas Israel has to offer in order to become a proud Jew amidst a large community. I don't know yet what will become of my interfaith identity. I know that within myself, I will always hold a deep pride for my family--my parents, who helped mold me into the best person I can be. And if anyone ever asks me what my plans are for the winter holidays, perhaps I'll mention their Christmas tree.