Home for the Holidays

By Teresa McMahon


Today’s mail brought the ordering information for High Holiday tickets. As I open the envelope, I can’t help but hum, “There’s no place like home for the holidays… ” I’m sure many people will consider my tune a bit of an odd choice for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Still, the lyrics truly express my relief at knowing that I will attend services this year with the congregation that has come to feel like my family.

My husband Barry and I spent the better part of May and June agonizing over the decision of whether to move to Toronto, Canada, or stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having wrestled with the prospect of moving, I am relieved that the only decision to wrestle with now is which service times to choose.

Barry and I had so many different things to contemplate as we tried to decide whether to move or stay. We compared career potential for each of us. We considered how our girls, Claire and Emily, would adjust to being raised in Canada. We calculated how the exchange rate would affect our financial situation. Not the least of our concerns was whether we as an interfaith family could find a congregation in Toronto with which we could connect.

As we asked realtors and potential colleagues about the Reform Jewish community in Toronto, I couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed with the prospect of having to move and find a new congregation. Raised Catholic, I’m the “inter” member of the family. Barry, Claire and Emily identify as Jewish. I’m also the member of the parental unit who feels most strongly that religion should play a part in our day-to-day lives. If we were to move, Barry was unlikely to put finding a new congregation high on his to-do list. Yet, the process of choosing a congregation is foreign to me. Catholics are affiliated with a church by location. Since the house I grew up in was in St. Lucy’s Parish, we were members of St. Lucy’s Church. We could (and did) go to Mass at other Catholic churches in town, but the process of formalizing affiliation with a congregation and signing up for religious school was determined by the parish boundaries within which you lived.

As I was faced with the possibility of moving to Toronto, I began to wonder how we would be able to rebuild the kind of connection that we feel at Temple Beth Emeth (TBE). I was pretty sure that we would not feel at home prior to the High Holidays and wondered how long it would take before we would find the “right” congregation to join. If we moved, would we ever find a congregation that fit our family as well as TBE did?

Our daughter Claire was 6 months old when we joined TBE. Barry and I had talked to realtors, colleagues, and neighbors before deciding to try the Reform congregation in Ann Arbor. Before Claire was born, Barry and I had lived in Chicago where our first attempt to find a synagogue to join had not been successful. So I was a bit nervous as we drove to TBE to meet the rabbi. In Chicago, we had been told that the rabbi for the congregation we wanted to join would not perform our marriage. But, if we still got married and had children, then they would welcome us as a family. Barry and I were frustrated by what we considered to be flawed logic. We didn’t want to be a reclamation project whose worth was based on our offspring. We wanted a congregation that accepted and welcomed us as worthy participants rather than tolerated our presence in order to gain access to our children.

Our first indication that TBE was the right choice for our family was that the congregation shared its building with a church. In addition to sharing space, a joint community service initiative called Genesis House is collaboratively supported by both congregations. Whether you think it was a sign or coincidence, the fact that the name of the church that shares space with TBE is St. Clare’s was hard for us to dismiss as a good omen. If we moved, would we ever find a congregation so visibly accepting of other faiths?

Tot Shabbats were among our first services. Claire, and, later, little sister Emily, loved the services–as did we. Our daughters are both in the religious education program now. The curriculum and the instructors impress Barry and me (we are both educational researchers by trade.) The girls love going to class, choosing to stay for the last ten minutes of religious school instead of leaving for the first ten minutes of their Saturday morning soccer games when the inevitable conflict arises. The religious school guitarist produced a CD of all the songs the children learn throughout the year, which has become the number one requested CD in our van. Barry and I also have attended classes to learn more about Judaism as a religion. If we moved, would we be able to find a congregation with such a dynamic educational program?

We have created a web of connections to other members of TBE; neighbors; friends from play groups; a rabbi who makes us laugh, cry, and think; other interfaith families raising their children as Jews who are drawn to TBE by the acceptance and welcome they feel. If we moved, would we ever find the same sense of acceptance in a Jewish community?

Deep inside I know that there are other Reform congregations out there where I would be as happy as I am at TBE. However, having experienced welcomes that were less enthusiastic than TBE’s, I wondered if I would have the stamina to search them out. Perhaps my greatest fear wasn’t that such a congregation wouldn’t exist in Toronto. Perhaps my concern, if I really thought about it, was that it would be quite a while before we as a family might have the energy and focus to try to find that new community. The move would be overwhelming. Adjusting to new jobs, making new friends, settling into a new home, enrolling in new schools, and acclimating to a new culture would have been first on our to-do list. If we were a single-denomination family, finding a church would have been right up there on our “to-do” list since it would have been another positive connection to the new city. However, fear of rejection is a big hurdle. Would Claire and Emily be recognized as Jewish based on their paternal lineage? Would I be welcomed as a viable member of the community even if I did not choose to convert? How long would it take before I felt accepted rather than just tolerated?

As we moved closer to the decision to stay here, I realized that our affiliation with TBE was one of the top three reasons for my wanting to stay in Ann Arbor.

It will be good to be home for the holidays!


About Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.