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Dear Dr. Paula,
I am a Catholic woman who considers myself to be quite "religious." I go to church regularly and find meaning and solace in the rituals. For the last three years I have been seriously dating a Jewish man whom I met through work. He goes to synagogue rarely but does attend services with his family on the Jewish holidays. He has never attended church with me nor invited me to his family's synagogue. This year I would like to attend these holiday services with him to see if I can find meaning in the service. I have even told him that I would not eat on Yom Kippur. Despite this, he has not yet invited me to join his family this year. Sometimes I wonder if he feels embarrassed to bring his Catholic girlfriend to his temple. What should I do?
Your partner is fortunate that you are so willing to support him in his observance of the Jewish High Holidays. Unfortunately, since Rosh Hashanah (the start of Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) only occur once a year, you may have to wait until another whole year passes in your relationship to experience these Jewish worship services with your partner--unless you resolve this issue quickly.
If you are both serious in your relationship, it is important for you each to be familiar with each other's worship setting, and to understand the meaning you each derive from attending church or synagogue. Overall, I encourage interfaith couples to have a first experience in each other's worship environment on a regular Sunday for church or Shabbat (Sabbath) for synagogue rather than during the High Holy Days. That is because the special holidays arrive laden with meanings to each of you that come from your childhood, as well as from adult experiences, and may therefore be more difficult for you as a couple. Plus, parents and extended families are often present, and that "loads" the experience. In addition, the Jewish High Holiday rituals and ambiance differ from weekly Shabbat services. For all these reasons and a few more--to which you allude to in your letter--this Yom Kippur may not be the best choice to find comfort and solace in a first synagogue experience, especially if you feel hungry because you are fasting.
Remember, with any "first" experience you should expect to feel unfamiliar with the "routine," so to speak, and thus it should feel somewhat uncomfortable. This would be true traveling to a new place or even attending a symphony for the first time. Only as you attend more frequently will YOUR comfort increase, and thus, it is optimal for both of you to attend services with each other more than once or twice a year.
I am assuming you have already met your partner¹s family, as you have been dating for three years. I always advise interfaith couples to avoid holidays for a first introduction and to choose a neutral non-religious time to get to know each other's parents and siblings. If this is a first meeting, this may contribute to your partner's reluctance to invite you to services this year. Would your Catholic parents feel completely comfortable having your partner accompany you to Midnight Mass if that were the first time they were meeting him or if it was his first experience in a church?
I would encourage you to ask your partner why he has not responded to your willingness to be with him and his family during these upcoming holidays. However, you both may need to address some broader issues, especially the meaning of religion in each of your lives. Try to open up communication by talking about your childhood memories of holidays and life-cycle events, and then gradually begin to explore your experiences as adults. Remember, time is on your side, as the High Holidays will occur again next year. Use the time afforded in the months ahead to gain familiarity with the rituals of each other's worship. It is my hope for you both that by next year you can indeed feel comfort in the synagogue for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.