A Rabbi Finds A Synagogue Home

By Wendy Spears

January 22, 2009


It’s challenging for many Jews who are searching to find a synagogue that feels like a home place. It’s even more challenging when those Jews are a rabbi and her family. Although I learned all the mechanics of praying, sermonizing, and chanting Hebrew texts while I was in graduate school, I’m not such a big fan of worship services.

Rabbi Wendy SpearsI dearly love Jewish study and stories, community events, and warm gatherings of family and friends. When asked, I identify myself as religious; I resonate strongly with Jewish ritual practice, despite my general dissonance with formal prayer.

My husband is also a professional in the Jewish community, holding a master’s degree in Jewish history. He grew up in a Zionist youth movement; his leanings are more toward the cultural and political rather than the spiritual aspects of Jewish life.

As a family each year, we host a Passover seder with lots of singing, build a sukkah in our yard for the fall harvest of Sukkot, fry up five pounds of potatoes into latkes at Hanukkah and dress up in costume for Purim. We tell lots of stories from Jewish history, the Bible and the folk literature; my kids especially love stories that make them laugh and tales about Elijah on his secret journeys around the world. We try to see the world through Jewish eyes by talking to our children about current events and societal mores through the lens of our cultural values.

When our kids were toddlers, we looked for a synagogue where the members were families like us: parents close to us in age with kids close in age to ours. We tried out a Conservative synagogue for a few years, but I felt I needed to be at a Reform synagogue. I grew up in the Reform movement, in which I was also ordained, and love the theology, customs, music and philosophy.

After much searching and weighing the personalities involved (and believe me, I know lots of rabbis and their various idiosyncrasies), my husband and I found a synagogue home that has a good mix of young and old, veterans and newbies, ardent activists and educated professionals.

I am proud to be a member of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Calif., a really welcoming synagogue which is warm, homey, and relatively informal. Upon entering the building, we all write a name tag for ourselves to make meeting and greeting each other easier. My colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes (pronounced kip-ness) makes the synagogue a place where various points of view and differing personalities can be relatively comfortable being a family together. He encourages us to introduce ourselves to those we don’t know and strike up a conversation before we eat a cookie at the Oneg Shabbat (dessert reception after the worship service).

Or Ami is a place where people ask questions and diligently search for answers. It’s also a place where people on a broad spectrum of political views and religious sensibilities reach out to welcome those who’ve been on the periphery to come on in and join the fun. And, it has become a place where interfaith families are integrated into the community as fully as possible. Among the friends I’ve made at the synagogue are several families where one of the adults in the family isn’t Jewish but lives a Jewish life with his or her spouse and children.

Let me give you an example of how we showed our welcome and appreciation on Yom Kippur morning. Drawing from the example of our colleague Rabbi Janet Marder has done for the past few years at her congregation in northern California, Rabbi Kipnes invited all the non-Jewish parents who make it possible for their families to live Jewish lives to come up on the bima (podium stage) to receive a special blessing. After his own blessing, the rabbi coordinated the entire congregation to bless these wonderful members of our community, to show our gratitude, respect, and love.

I was moved to tears as I saw so many men and women who’ve been brave enough to navigate the Jewish waters with their Jewish partners, sometimes against the storm of their own parents’ and extended families’ disapproval and negativity. I felt especially fortunate to witness a friend who is newly a Jew hold the Torah scroll for the first time in front of the entire congregation. He decided to become Jewish because of all the positive experiences of learning and community that he has had at Congregation Or Ami.

The entire Congregation Or Ami family is committed to reaching interfaith families and helping them to feel that they have found a comfortable Jewish home. We have a caring committee that reaches out to congregants in need and a social action committee that organizes a Mitzvah Day project that puts together hundreds of love-packs (duffel bags filled with necessities and fun stuff) each year for children removed from their homes by Child Protective Services. There is a family learning program for parents and children to study Judaism together, wonderful music in English and Hebrew and a choir that could move the heavens, and a rabbi and cantorial soloist who are as sensitive as they can possibly be to each member’s needs.

Outreach has been my personal rabbinic mission for over 18 years. I believe it is my responsibility to help open the door to Judaism to all who come to seek. My experience from childhood has always been that Judaism is fun and meaningful and I want to share that experience. I believe that there is a warm and homey place for interfaith families in Judaism, and Congregation Or Ami is one of those places where Judaism is fun, meaningful, heartfelt, and welcoming. It has become my home in the Jewish community, with space for me to be a Jew and a rabbinic colleague, where my family is comfortable in practicing the Judaism that is meaningful to them.


About Wendy Spears

Wendy Spears is a free-lance rabbi in the Los Angeles area who officiates at weddings, funerals, and baby-naming ceremonies, as well as providing opportunities for spiritual guidance and Jewish learning. She specializes in reaching out to Jews and interfaith couples to welcome them into the Jewish community. She can be reached through InterfaithFamily.com or at her website www.rabbiwendy.com.