Today I kashered my kitchen. Well, actually – a lovely Tunisian friend named Riadh and his catering team did the work. I just designated things milk, meat and parve and called the Rabbi to ask if I had to get rid of all my knives and whether you had to polish the silver before kashering it (you don’t.) Strange things happened. The idea of giving up my mother’s bread knife had me close to tears. The idea of never using my blue mugs (now dairy) when I served dinner on our white china (meat) made me angry. Was I sure – I asked myself – that this was the right decision – a commitment that, once made, I would honor as a matter of principle as well as faith.
Two years ago my husband Rick and I were living a modern, unaffiliated life in Washington’s trendy Georgetown neighborhood. Our synagogue attendance consisted mainly of high holidays “drive bys” (as my husband called them), as guests of friends, to Washington’s largest Reform synagogue. Rick’s chronic illness and open-heart surgery had had a huge impact on our lives; that, combined with our concerns about the state of the rest of the world had left us emotionally and physically exhausted – and we didn’t even know it.
Rosh Hashanah caught us by surprise – we had no tickets and decided, rather than bother our friends, to find tickets for ourselves. We began calling – looking for tickets at a synagogue that might be comfortable. After one told Rick they could “offer you two in the balcony for $2,200” we decided this wasn’t our year to be religious – we’d just sit it out.
The very next day – one day before the holiday — a story appeared in the Washington Post about a young Orthodox rabbi working to rescue a dying congregation in DC’s upper northwest. He’d added “The National Synagogue” to the name of the shul and hoped to make the name a reality. “What chutzpah” my husband said. “I have to meet this guy.”
When he called the synagogue, the man who answered the phone invited us to come to Rosh Hashanah as his guests. The only requirement – that we arrive by 8:30 and introduce ourselves. “Who is this?” my husband asked. “Oh” came the answer, “I’m the rabbi.”
You can probably guess what happened next. We went – the rabbi (his name is Shmuel Herzfeld) took us home for lunch – where a gentle visitor explained to me that I couldn’t ask people where they were from while washing because they couldn’t respond – my first lesson — then to visit elderly homebound congregants and blow the Shofar for them, then back to services and home again for dinner with him, his doctor wife and three (now four) amazing children, and various sisters, cousins and friends. I guess there was a time in the 70s when they called it love bombing – engaging people with such warmth and acceptance that resistance was, as the Borg used to say, futile. But what happened with us, with Shmuel and with the emerging community we’re now proud to help build – wasn’t love-bombing by a cult. It was an offering of warmth, acceptance and purpose that reached parts of us we’d forgotten about.
I remember driving home after services in the early weeks and saying to Rick, “I know what’s happening. If we get involved with these people we’ll be inhaled. We’ll lose the rest of our lives. I don’t care how nice they are it’s all too weird for me.” I remember Rick’s response: “We aren’t going to lose ourselves – we’re going to find ourselves” —two people we hadn’t had honest contact with for a long time.
As time went by, I began to feel a deep appreciation for our Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat. I understand that in many shuls women do not attend that service, and I find that astonishing. It is clearly the most accessible and inspiring service, one of great unity, love and joy, and a family event. The trouble was, and is, I cry. Every week. Usually during the first part of the service. During the first third of the service. When I complained once to a friend about my quest to find and feel God she said “OK – so you think the music isn’t getting through? Who do you think is making you cry?” She was right, of course. The music, just like the warmth of the Rabbi and the congregation, was a message. We were meant to be there and to learn there. And that’s what we’re doing. We decided to wait a year, and if we still felt the same way, to move close to the shul.
Now we live in the neighborhood. We walk to shul. We pray. We study. We’re active in helping to build the community. There’s a Women’s Beit Midrash and a book club and lectures all the time. The learning is exciting not only because I didn’t know any of it but because I hadn’t known I didn’t know. The spiritual life is moving and very rewarding – although like everyone I struggle for the connections we all seek. I love Shabbat, which I thought I’d hate – and happily anticipate lighting the candles each Friday night.
The reality of what Judaism really is – its emphasis on family and justice and concepts like Lashon Hara, the great rewards of participation in a faith that is a journey and not a destination – as well as the warmth that surrounds us, the fact of complete participation rather than service as an audience, the community of supportive and loving friends and the joy of their amazing children and our amazing, inspiring rabbi – all serve to help us make our way. And now they can come have Shabbat with us. We have a kosher house.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.