Making a Choice

NecklacesI haven’t posted here in quite a while, but I have something to post later in the week that won’t make sense unless I jump ahead in my story. I will keep telling the story of how I got here. But for today, I’m going to share the statement I read at Shabbat services in June 2017 on the day I became Jewish:

When my husband and I started dating, I was a practicing Methodist.

Before we married, we agreed that any kids we had would be raised Jewish and that we would find a congregation where I would be comfortable, too. We’d find somewhere I could come with my Jewish family and feel familiar enough. At the time, the kid part felt like the big decision. The part about me seemed ancillary. It would be an opportunity to learn, but not something that would change my direction. I would continue to go off to church on Sundays, too.

As it turned out, the part about finding a synagogue community where I was comfortable wasn’t ancillary at all. It was the first baby step on the road that brought me here today.

Fifteen years ago, Joel and I stood together under a huppa. We’d chosen a Jewish wedding after reading a book that described Jewish wedding traditions. As I read about them, our plans to have a co-officiated ceremony fell away. There was a richness and truth to the symbolism of the huppa and the broken glass that spoke to me even though I’d never been to a Jewish wedding.

We joined our first synagogue together shortly after we got married. It was a tiny Reform congregation in northern California where no one thought twice about an interfaith family, and where I could start to learn Jewish prayers by ear. The prayer books didn’t have much transliteration, so I spent those years reading the cantor’s lips, imperfectly learning the sounds of Jewish prayer, and learning how to stop being self-conscious about the fact that I was a beginner.

While we were there, we had stillborn twin boys. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the mourners’ Kaddish became the language of my grief, the people showing up for us became my community too in a very concrete way, and the Mi Sheberach became the language of my prayers for healing.

Six months later, my sister called to say her best friend knew a pregnant teenager in Kansas who was looking for a home for the baby she was expecting. Four months after that, we brought our daughter home, and I learned the word beschert. We had a baby naming, and the same congregation that had cried with us now lined up to hold the baby.

That year was when Judaism began to be part of me. Not just something I watched, but something I practiced pieces of. In the years that have passed since the drama of that year, there have been many other far more subtle turning points, when what I was and what I am shifted slightly.

Since then, we have moved cross-country three times. We have belonged to this synagogue (twice) and a Reconstructionist congregation in southern California in between. I have become increasingly involved in our congregations every step of the way. For me, one of the primary expressions of a life of faith is, was, and will be a commitment to finding ways to serve. Even at times when I felt my own difference or like an outsider, I have been welcomed. And there has always been a satisfying, meaningful, and sometimes even surprising answer to the question, “How can I help?”

The first time I joined a synagogue choir—at the urging of people who’d heard me sing at a congregational retreat—it didn’t occur to me until I opened my new binder that most of the songs would be in Hebrew—and then a beat later, I realized I knew the phonetics of Hebrew well enough to be OK.

The last time I joined a church was in 2011. It was the Congregational church where our southern California congregation had worshiped before it had its own building. The two congregations still had a relationship, and I pretty much only saw the minister when he was at the synagogue for an event.

The day I joined that church, they handed me a lapel pin shaped like a red comma and said, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”

Never put a period where God has put a comma.

The sentiment stuck with me, and it struck me when I started to think about what I wanted to say tonight.

For a long time, I thought the words, “I will not become Jewish” were a full sentence. I was a Christian with a Jewish family. I would participate in Jewish family life and even in synagogue life, but the traditions I grew up with were part of me. They were an intrinsic part of my childhood and young adulthood—a part that I valued.

But it wasn’t the full sentence after all.

“I will not become Jewish” turned out to be the start of a paragraph that read, “I will not become Jewish until I have spent 15 years counting time in seders, High Holiday services, and Shabbats. I will not become Jewish until Mourner’s Kaddish is the prayer I reach for when a death moves me, and Mi Sheberach the prayer I use to ask for healing of myself or others. I will not become Jewish until words like tsuris and mitzvah and mazel tov roll off my tongue with ease. And, most importantly, I will not become Jewish until I can no longer imagine myself setting aside these things.”

I imagine my Jewish future will look much like my present. I will study Hebrew a little bit this summer so I don’t lose what I’ve learned in the past year and look forward to B’nai Binah class starting up again in the fall. I’ll go to school board meetings and organize the book fair. I’ll organize rides and visits if anyone needs help. I’ll come to Shabbat services—especially on nights when I’ve forgotten how to breathe.

I am extraordinarily lucky that the people who love me the most have said clearly and repeatedly that this is my decision and that they love me no matter what I choose. I also owe much gratitude to everyone along the way who has befriended me, taught me, and accepted me. In ways large and small, you have helped bring me to this day.

Over 15 years, Judaism has become part of who I am. Today, I become part of Judaism. Today, I can say for the first time, I am a Jew.

That was two decisions?


Before we married, we made two decisions that seemed like one at the time. Any children we had would be Jewish, and we would look for a synagogue that fit both of us. We were clear that we wanted to find a synagogue where we were both comfortable—that sending Joel and our then-theoretical offspring off to synagogue while I stayed home wasn’t going to work for either of us.

For me as an individual, this was a big decision that I didn’t recognize as one at the time. Back then, it felt like a natural part of deciding to raise a Jewish family. Of course we would find somewhere that I felt comfortable. But treating the synagogue search as something we were doing together as a family, not just as something Joel was doing, was the first in a series of baby steps.

Here’s what I thought: I would come along to services sometimes and try to be enough a part of things that I’d feel connected when kid activity time rolled around. My primary commitments would be at a church. And my relationship to Christianity would not change.

As the Yiddish proverb goes, “Men plan, God laughs.”

As it turned out, the decision to make the synagogue choice a family decision nudged me toward not just parachuting in, but really and truly trying to—and increasingly succeeding in—being part of Jewish community, sometimes by baby step, sometimes by leap.

The fact that we both saw involvement in a faith community as an important part of settling in and making a life for ourselves was important in and of itself. It wasn’t that one of us felt strongly about engagement in a faith community and the other was averse or apathetic. We both wanted to feel connected, to start making friends in our new home; and we both saw synagogue membership as an important step in that direction.

My need to feel part of a community is heavily influenced by being an introvert who has spent much of her adult life starting over in new places. I love knowing people; I do not particularly enjoy meeting them.

I can happily wade into a crowd of people I know and ask follow-up questions—How’s your mom doing? Have you heard from the school yet? Did you see we changed the meeting time? But making small talk with a clutch of strangers exhausts me. On a good night, I can chat away about anything. But if I’m tired, I have a hard time starting a conversation with a stranger, and if one does actually get started, I’m terrible at keeping any momentum going. I start into rounds of, “uh huh, uh huh, that’s great,” that even while I’m doing it I know is conversational death.

My years as a newspaper reporter helped teach me how to talk to people I don’t know. I got so I could pick up the phone or walk up to a stranger without an internal pep talk first, but it was learned behavior, not my natural way of being. As a reporter, I had the news judgment but not the conversational fearlessness I needed. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a copy editor) told us that if you’re basically a salesman, you’re a reporter, if you’re basically an accountant, you’re a copy editor. At the time I resisted the analogy, but it was only about a year before a city editor recognized which one I was and sat me down in front of a computer to edit to my heart’s content.

In a conversational pinch I will use those years as a reporter to fall back on just interviewing the other person if they’ve said something that intrigues me, but that’s not a very balanced way to have a conversation.

In a faith community, I know I have something in common with the other people there—maybe not all of our specific beliefs, but at least certain common ideas about what is important in life, and that we should take care of each other. Since I can plod along for too long at the small-talk level, being in a religious community, where people have relationships, where they talk about life cycle events—the good and the bad—is the ideal place to form friendships, because it gives me somewhere to ask how I can pitch in and then feel like I’m contributing something while I’m getting comfortable—or really, more accurately, as a way of getting comfortable. Who knew that joining something could be an introvert’s way in?