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?