In July 2017, at my 38th Kabbalat Shabbat service in 10 months, the rabbi suggested that we greet those around us and share something good from the day. I told a stranger that I had just formally joined the synagogue. It was momentous because, at 59, I had never belonged to a Jewish community. The stranger next to me had no way of knowing all that it had taken me, a half-Jewish, patrilineal, now-Unitarian, to become a regular participant in Friday night services. But I was euphoric.
I had first come to the temple in September 2016, prompted by a PBS documentary about a Unitarian minister who rescued Jews in 1939 Prague. As a member of the congregation he served, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, in Massachusetts, I was proud of this mission. Yet I found the film’s heroic narrative jarring. “It’s a great Unitarian story, but it’s not my story,” I later told the rabbi. I am the daughter of a Polish Holocaust-survivor father and a German Lutheran mother, who met in Germany after the war. While identifying as Jewish, I have lived with narratives from both sides for as long as I can remember. So, days after the documentary aired, I attended my first Shabbat at Wellesley’s Temple Beth Elohim, venturing outside the neutral cocoon of my Unitarian life. It was time to grapple with my origins in a Jewish context.
My father, who had called himself a “proud Jew,” was so confident in his own identity that he assumed it would readily transfer to his children. My parents established a rudimentary Jewish home life: I had a baby-naming ceremony, said the Shema with my mother every night, and, when older, fasted on Yom Kippur. We held Passover Seders and lit Hanukkah candles.
Yet I felt disconnected from our extended Jewish family, mostly in Israel, and from American Judaism. During the 1960s, the few Jews in our WASPy New England town lived under the radar. I knew nothing about Jewish communal life or the milieus other Jewish children inhabited, including Hebrew school and summer camps. It was not until college that I experienced liturgical music.
From age 23 to 30, I lived in Brookline, one of the most Jewish towns in Massachusetts. There were six synagogues within a mile of my apartment. I ate bagels from Jewish bakeries and saw Orthodox boys with tzitzit, but never attended services except for Kol Nidre across the river at Harvard. I met men at contra dances, on Appalachian Mountain Club trips, and through occasional setups by well-meaning Jewish friends. The more religious the man was—Jewish or not—the less comfortable I felt. The last Jew I dated said, “You don’t seem Jewish at all. It’s bizarre.” I married a disaffected Catholic who had no expectations about what a Jewish woman should be like.
Eager for our sons to have a religious grounding, my husband and I found our way to Unitarian Universalism, with its free-thinking attitude and principles grounded in social justice. We arrived at the Unitarian society in Wellesley in early 1998, after the confusing December holidays. I was turning 40, late to enter my first faith community. The congregation was formally a “society,” but most people called it “church.” Indeed, although the sanctuary lacked Christian symbols, it felt church-like, with an organ and choir, a hymnal, and a carved pulpit. I enjoyed the sermons but hesitated to call the mostly passive Sunday experience “worship.”
I loved what the Wellesley Unitarians offered. It was a place to be with people who shared my values, regardless of religious history. Yet, as in a family, there were worries. Our sanctuary, built in the 1960s to hold 350 people, started to feel cavernous as weekly attendance fell to under 100. We started to say, “Where are the children?” We told ourselves that the drop-off was cultural and generational, even while believing that the religiously unaffiliated would benefit from Unitarianism’s amorphous inclusiveness. I became one of the most visible volunteers. Conducting summer worship services, singing in the choir—these activities expressed my best self.
It was important to me that I wasn’t converting to anything, and the ministers reassured me that there were many Jews in UU congregations. One minister suggested that Unitarian Universalism was closer to Reform Judaism than to Christianity, a thought that played in the back of my mind, just beyond consciousness, for years. In early 2016, unsettled by losses, I commented to someone that I might have to become Jewish again. “There’s no conflict: Friday night, Sunday morning,” he said. Several months later, that’s what I decided to do. I justified my straddling as a writing project: I would learn the Jewish calendar and explore how Jewish and UU theologies aligned despite different packaging.
A wise person told me that any time is the right time to step into a Jewish journey. I didn’t have a Jewish community growing up, but when I was ready, there was a special place that had undergone its own evolution. Temple Beth Elohim was the fastest-growing Reform synagogue in the U.S., with over 1,200 families from about 40 towns. It had outgrown its 1961 building and moved into a spectacular modern makom just six years before. There were four rabbis and a cantor.
I cried at my first Friday night service. Nothing in my UU experience prepared me for how alive the TBE sanctuary felt. My reaction had little to do with the service itself, because I was not the target demographic: The hundreds of attendees included many children. It was multisensory, with a teen rock band, visuals projected onto large screens, and modern interpretations of liturgical songs coupled with hand motions. The rabbi gave a microsermon on the “do not covet” commandment, how it taught us to realize that we already have enough. The message fit the atmosphere of abundance and joy.
The following week’s Kabbalat Shabbat was quieter. We broke down barriers by singing wordless niggunim. The liturgy highlighted the maturity and grace of the cantor, who played guitar and sang with a warm and pure tone. A pianist improvised in an unobtrusive way. The Mishkan T’filah siddur, with its transliterated Hebrew, English translations, and modern readings, offered several entry points. I was drawn to the imagery of the psalms and listened closely to the rabbis, impressed by how much they conveyed with just a few words. With a baby naming and mourner’s kaddish, the service held life in a thimble. I left refreshed.
The Shabbat liturgy was not mine, however. I didn’t understand the sequence or that the same prayers were sung with different musical settings from week to week. I was slow to follow the transliterations. The choreography was foreign. The services felt like beautiful performances, which I enjoyed from the back row.
After a few months I moved forward, no longer an objective outsider. The decision was prompted by a Torah moment, ancient words speaking to me with urgency and immediacy. Parshat Toldot, about Esau and Jacob, made me think about the archetypal tensions within families. I wrestled with the idea that a favored person could be flawed and a less-favored one suffer from apparent injustice. No UU sermon had ever made me consider human nature this way, and I knew that the synagogue was where I could grow.
I had a lot to learn about Judaism as a religion and as an identity. I read dozens of books, including memoirs by Dani Shapiro, Julius Lester, and Helen Epstein. After Toldot, I enrolled in the Union for Reform Judaism’s 16-week introduction to Judaism class. I wanted to know as much as a convert and to assert my claim on the tradition. Three rabbis and a Hebrew instructor taught the class, putting texts, holidays, and history into context. I met potential converts, or Jews by Choice, inspired by their many paths to joining this richly particular people.
It was an exciting but anxious time for me. The WWII background lurked. I worried both about my Jewish status and whether I’d have to choose between Unitarianism and Judaism. During class, I listened for clues to my situation. One of the rabbis offered two essential insights. The first was about the Holocaust, which she said was “a terrible reason to want to be Jewish. You should want to be Jewish because it’s gorgeous.” Of course I would remember what my family endured, but these words framed my identity as a joy rather than a burden. Two weeks later, the rabbi explained Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s three B’s of Jewish identity: behavior, belief, and belonging. By then I desperately wanted to call myself a Jew, but hit the wall on “belonging.” The rabbi reassured me by email: Since 1983, in the Reform movement, I could indeed be considered a Jew despite having a non-Jewish mother, and this belonging to the Jewish people was not synonymous with belonging to a synagogue. She understood that my Unitarian community sustained me but hoped I would continue to explore Jewish settings.
I returned to Brookline and bought a blue-dyed soapstone heart inscribed with the word “Gratitude.” It reminded me that to be Jewish is to sanctify the everyday. I had new eyes and a fresh outlook on my identity. When I spoke with my rabbi in June, I affirmed that I was “absolutely” a Jew. It was time to join the synagogue, he suggested. Other affiliations had no bearing on whether I should be among my people.
Another conversation brought the family strand into the story’s conclusion. I shared the news that I was joining a synagogue with my survivor father, and we were both surprised at how touching the moment was. We hugged. I undertook the journey alone, but I had brought my whole family’s Jewish identity to a new place. I savored the arrival, sweet as a braided challah.
Joining Temple Beth Elohim didn’t require me to change anything, but I made some new choices, reflecting my new status. I came to the bimah for a Rosh Hashana aliyah and received a blessing in the sukkah. I learned in small groups, including minyanim, discussions about Israel, and a Tikkun Middot class. I mounted a mezuza on the door frame of my study. For my 60th birthday, I immersed in the mikveh.
But these personal markers did not change my relationship to Temple Beth Elohim as much as I would have liked. I felt welcome there, but still didn’t really feel that I belonged. It took a tragedy to reset that. A week after the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, members of my Unitarian community came to a Solidarity Shabbat service, attended by 1,000 people at my temple. The temple posted a video of the rabbi’s stirring sermon, and I sent it to family and friends. My worlds joined. I started referring to TBE as “we.” It had taken two years.
I now have three homes, 1 1/2 miles apart. At my house, abutting the town forest, I notice small miracles. At the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, I work to build a community for those who, like me, don’t fit into a neat box but want to be connected and purposeful. At Temple Beth Elohim, I fill my spiritual cup, tapping the joy of a tradition that reminds us to infuse our lives with gratitude. Each place illuminates the others. I remain a universalist, but see our common human yearnings through the exquisitely particular Jewish lens.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.