On My Own: Entering a Synagogue without a Family

By Douglas Smith


The ad leapt off the page at me. A Taste of Judaism: Are You Curious? That ad, placed in many Boston area newspapers by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national organization of the Reform movement, appeared at just the right time in my life. I was middle-aged, single again, and beginning to explore the dissatisfaction I had long felt with the religion in which I had been raised. I answered unequivocally, “Yes!”

On a Tuesday evening in September 1997, I walked through the doors of Temple Israel in Boston, feeling that I was embarking on the rest of my life, although not yet convinced of this. The content of the Taste of Judaism course, led by Rabbi Wesley Odell (now known as Rabbi Lev B’aish, which means heart aflame), made sense to me intellectually and emotionally, and confirmed that I was on the right path.

After a few months of “letting it sit”, I signed up for more–an Introduction to Judaism course, led by the wonderfully enthusiastic Rabbi Ruth Alpers of Temple Israel. Most of the participants were couples and were younger than I am, but there were also a few individuals there with whom I became friendly. I still see some of them at the temple. By the time the course ended in the spring, I knew that I would convert, and I began to study with Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel.

It was while studying with Rabbi Mehlman that I slowly became part of the temple community. I went to Qabbalat Shabbat, (welcoming the Sabbath) service on Friday evening and to Torah study on Saturday morning. The first time I went to Torah study, I knew no one and wasn¹t sure what to expect–lecture, seminar, conversation, or free-for-all. As soon as I stepped into the lobby, looking a bit lost, a woman came up and introduced herself, asked if she could help, and walked me to Torah study, where she was going as well. By the time I left the temple that day, I had met four or five other Torah study regulars. Although going to the Friday night service by myself was intimidating at first, I began to meet people and to sit with some of them during the service. One of the people I met asked me if I would volunteer to be a greeter! All I had to do was smile and wish people Shabbat Shalom. At first, I understood this greeting literally as “Sabbath peace,” but the more I read, particularly Abraham Joshua Heschel¹s book The Sabbath, the more I understood its relation to B¹reshit 2:3, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation which he had done.” [The Torah, a Modern Commentary, ed. W. G. Plaut] So, the sense of it became “May the Sabbath be an opportunity for you to rest and to regain wholeness and peace.” The opportunity is there whether I choose to take advantage of it or not.

Continuing education programs at Temple Israel are a wonderful way for me to meet people and learn something new at the same time (talk and learn–a very Jewish concept). Many of the programs take place on Friday night after the service and are preceded by dinner, so there are multiple opportunities to meet other members of the congregation. The events around last year¹s theme, Sefardic Jewry, included dinners, lectures, concerts and films. I met people at these events whom I might not have met any other way.

The interest and warm support shown me during the conversion process and afterward touched me deeply. There was always someone asking me how it was going or sharing his or her experience with me. Many of these individuals smiled indulgently as I waxed enthusiastic about the prospect of learning Hebrew. I look back now and I smile at how far I have come in learning Hebrew and in becoming part of the community.

One day during the conversion process, I was kvetching (complaining) to Rabbi Mehlman that I didn¹t feel part of the community and wondering if I ever would. He told me to be patient and that I would find my own communities within the congregation, based on common interests and activities. He was right.

Here are some of the things that help me feel “part of” the community:

     I show up at services, Torah study, Hebrew class and other activities. The Temple offers Sunday morning discussions for individuals considering conversion and get-acquainted dinners for those new to the congregation.

     I make the effort to talk to people I don¹t know. Temple Israel makes a point of actively welcoming strangers and newcomers to services and other activities.

     I volunteer for projects that interest me. Because our temple has such a large membership, there are social action, education and other projects for every interest.

Several months after my official conversion in the mikvah (ritual bath), I received my Hebrew name and was welcomed as a member of the Jewish people in front of family and friends. I remembered the path I had started down several years before and said silently “Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheynu melech haolam, Shehechiyanu, v¹kiyamanu, v¹higianu, la z man hazeh. Blessed are you, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who gives us life, who sustains us, and who brings us to this occasion.”


About Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith is a Cambridge-based writer who specializes in corporate and business communications issues. He is a member of Temple Israel in Boston, Mass.