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Going Home Again

May 29, 2013

Like a persistent humming sound that gradually agitates your senses over time, I found that our lack of involvement in a Jewish community was gnawing at me more and more. During Hanukkah this past year, I felt the need to raise our child within a synagogue. When my four-year-old son lit the candles every night and demonstrated a sincere interest in the story of Hanukkah, he convinced me that joining a synagogue might be the right decision for our family. While I can support my son's desire to know more about Hanukkah at home, I am limited in my ability to provide him with the presence of a Jewish community.

During a brisk and overcast afternoon walk with my husband, I casually brought up visiting temples. Nervous to broach the topic, I was not entirely surprised when he was not immediately supportive of the idea. He questioned why we would want to raise our child in only one of our religions and not the other. He also feared that we would be classified as "different" or "other" in a synagogue setting. Truthfully, my husband was right. This was an explicit decision to raise our son in one religious setting and I had no way of knowing whether we would fit into a Jewish synagogue as an interfaith family. In addition to my husband's apprehension, I also had fears.

My own synagogue experience concluded when I turned 18 years old. I had not been in a synagogue for many years; I wondered if I would feel at home in one, considering that I had to reach out to a rabbi I had never even met to marry us. Previously, I pondered whether I let my community down when I married someone who wasn't Jewish, but now I wondered if I was disappointing my husband for trying to place us in a society that might not consider us one of their own. Yet the only way to confront our fears was to work through them and to try something new.

With my main reasons comprised of faith, morals, education, tradition, and community, my husband ultimately understood why I wanted our son to be part of a synagogue. Due to my husband's open-mindedness and willingness to visit a temple, I located one accepting of interfaith families. When we slowly drove up to the temple for the first time on an early Sunday morning, all three of us were nervous. While my husband and son had to journey into a completely foreign environment, I re-entered a familiar setting at a different point in my life. As an adult, I returned to synagogue bearing choices that fell outside of the socially acceptable norm. Would I continue to be judged for these decisions and, consequently, face segregation in some way? Would my family also face alienation for my choices? Would we feel ashamed if we did not fit in?

My fears were quickly dispelled once we were inside the temple. As we observed the Sunday school class for our son, many parents warmly introduced themselves to us and took time to explain more about the temple classes and environment. While not expecting it, I felt overwhelmingly welcomed and I could sense that my husband also felt comfortable.

Over the past decade, fear, and not interfaith marriage, had created my distance from Jewish life. In my mind, I felt that I could no longer belong to a Jewish community because I had broken a fundamental rule from my upbringing: marriage stays between two Jewish people. With the choices I had made, I worried that I could no longer be considered Jewish in the eyes of others. This insecurity limited my involvement with Judaism and stopped me from exploring the what ifs. What if some communities welcome interfaith families? What if some temples not only welcome interfaith families but understand the importance of integrating this growing segment of couples? What if by protecting myself from criticism, I was actually imprisoning myself? What if by honoring one faith, we chose to diminish the other? What if who you love doesn't make you less Jewish?

To focus on the last question, the person I love has given me the most amazing gifts in my life. He has shown me unconditional love and we have created a beautiful and loving family life as a result. Without his support and devotion, I do not think I would have reconnected with my heritage, appreciated my culture as much as I do today, or have seen the importance of preserving tradition. Marrying someone Jewish is not a requirement to raising Jewish children. While my husband is Hindu, he has provided me with a great spiritual path that has both led me away from the familiar and yet strikingly back home. This is also why temple now feels different to me: I am no longer a child placed by her parents in a synagogue, but an adult with a worldview who chooses to be there in order to have the opportunity to study, grow, and understand.

There, in the midst of one family member beginning to assert his independence and two who have joined in their collective independence, my family now spends a few Sunday mornings a month in temple. Watching my son recently eat his first hamantashen and sing about Haman for Purim filled me with a great sense of pride. He is experiencing what I experienced and he is learning who he is right now. I can only hope that whatever he chooses in his life, he always finds comfort in a loving and supportive community by whatever name that community holds. By exposing my son to Jewish culture and teachings, I hope that this moral foundation will help guide him as he makes decisions in his life.

Although we have chosen a specific religion to share with him, it is just the starting point for his choices. There are many what if questions that our son will have to answer on his own but I hope to share something that I have learned. What if you choose the right partner who happens to be different than you? The power of unconditional love illuminates the best version of ourselves and causes us to expand our perspectives. Even if your life partner does not share your faith, love creates a kind of blissful freedom which makes us only more likely to share and celebrate who we are. While certain parts of our lives are defined for us, each of us has the capacity to create our own story and to chart a new place of where we are headed without abandoning where we have been.

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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. 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.
Heather Subba

Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. She works in the field of educational publishing.

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