Catherine Fischer is the coordinator of the Center City Kehillah in Philadelphia, Penn. The Center City Kehillah is a community building project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in cooperation with the Jewish Outreach Partnership.
The Support of My Congregation
Jews love food. It brings us back to special moments in our lives and connects us with our heritage and our ancestors. When we sit around a table on Pesach (Passover) with an abundance of culinary delights, we feel appreciative of what our freedom has offered us.
However, reminiscing about food and generation-old recipes also reminds the Jew-by-choice that he/she does not share this ancestry. As someone who converted fifteen-plus years ago, I still feel at a loss with how to creatively come to terms with all of these inescapable reminders that I lack the familial heritage. Although this issue only occasionally arises, when it does, there is very little I can do about it. There are no classes that I can take that would give me that heritage, and no conversion processes that include a new set of parents. But the issues and reminders keep arising. If the Jew-by-choice is a full member of the Jewish community upon conversion, how do we deal with this issue of heritage, or l'Dor v'Dor (generation to generation), not just with food but also during life-cycle events and other occasions?
One solution for the Jew-by-choice is to connect to a synagogue community. Doing so enabled me to feel empowered to meet many of these challenges. I recently wrote an article in our synagogue newsletter about my son who was soon to become a Bar Mitzvah. In that article, I explicitly thanked my spiritual community for helping me "partner-parent" my son through his Jewish education and in nurturing his Jewish identity. Teachers, rabbis and friends in our congregation took my family and me under their wings, sharing their knowledge and culture of Judaism with us. Religious school teachers taught Hebrew to my son and me, and rabbis reached out to teach us about such things as tzedakah (acts of justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the word). Our friends welcomed my family and me into their lives and homes and taught us what being Jewish outside the synagogue meant. With them, I felt comfortable expressing my occasional uneasiness with cooking, speaking Hebrew, and understanding certain rituals. In essence, all together teachers, rabbi and friends gave me a contemporary Jewish heritage from which I gradually developed a repertoire of Jewish memories and experiences upon which to draw.
I have also come to appreciate that with a little creativity, Jews-by-choice can weave their past into the fabric of Jewish life by incorporating their family's customs, traditions and culinary delights into the fabric of our Jewish traditions. For example, on one Pesach I put together a list of kosher-for-Pesach recipes that reflected the non-Jewish cultures of other Jews-by-choice in our synagogue. The collection included a dessert recipe from India and a vegetable dish from Italy. The recipes were then published in our congregational newsletter. The entire synagogue community had the opportunity to add richness to their Passover seders that reflected the diversity that makes up the Jewish people today. For the adults who chose Judaism, including old family recipes at their seders provided an opportunity to honor their birth culture in the context of their Jewish lives.
Jews-by-choice may not share in every aspect of Jewish life exactly the same way that someone who grew up in a rich Jewish home does. However, once Jews-by-choice see the potential for incorporating some of their own culture within traditional Jewish customs, we enrich our own Jewish lives and open up the minds of others to the potential and opportunity that Jews-by-choice provide. When we avail ourselves of the synagogue community, that community has the potential to act and serve as the Jewish "family" that we sometimes need to help us along on our Jewish journey.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.