A Moment of Gratitude
by Suzi Neft
I was scared to death! Coming from a violent marriage with a young son, Alex, who I was trying to protect and educate Jewishly. We practiced Jewish traditions at home and attended High Holiday services at my mother’s Conservative synagogue. Alex’s father, a non-Jew, agreed before marriage that our children would be raised Jewish, and Alex had been, until the end of the marriage. His father, who practiced no religion, suddenly began taking our child to church. Alex was confused and upset because he felt Jewish.
I had little money and was looking for a job and a place to worship where my son and I would be accepted and feel safe. My mother’s Conservative synagogue, not one I felt comfortable in anyway, sneered when I asked about membership. They barely had a religious school and that was not good enough for my son or me.
I began visiting shuls and interviewed 10. Nine insisted on seeing my prior year’s tax return to determine my dues bill to establish what they believed I could pay. Working only through attorneys and accountants, my husband and I still paid taxes together. Extracting my earnings was difficult, but nonetheless, I wasn’t working and had little money to spare. Keeping a roof over our heads and food in our bellies came first.
My ex-husband and I had been married at Temple Sinai because the rabbi at the time performed interfaith marriages, so I called and they invited me to an open house; but they excluded my son who was seven. Alex and I both had to feel comfortable with our choice of temple or I could not join. My son’s feelings were the highest priority. So Alex joined me at Open House Sunday. Awaiting us in the vestibule were two rabbis, the executive director and a few members, and no one else. Alex made beeline for the rabbis! This surprised me. He knew the rabbi at my mother’s shul, but would never talk with him. My son, who had always spoken well and was very comfortable with adults, seemed so happily occupied and in deep conversation that I didn’t feel needed by his side.
Estelle, a member of the congregation, a tiny, vibrant grey-haired woman with energy preceding her approached me. I could feel her joy and openness. We talked about the accepting congregants, service schedule, the Board’s thoughts on dues payment and that seeing my tax return was unnecessary, and the rabbis’ rapport with both adults and children, obvious by the deep discussion my son had begun with both rabbis, one at a time. I worried that Alex’s conversations with the rabbis took time away from other prospective members, but Estelle reassured me that was not the case.
Estelle made me feel comfortable. She washed the tension from my back and I felt clean, comfortable, accepted, that my life was going to make a good turn right here, right now. I hoped Alex felt the same, though I doubt he was ever tense about the visit; he’s still a brave and bold soul.
After a half hour of conversation, Estelle offered me a tour of the building. Growing up in Pittsburgh and being a member of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, there wasn’t a temple or shul I hadn’t seen from top to bottom, except for the Hassidic and Lubovitch ones. It was time to leave, to let others meet and greet with the members and the rabbis and discuss the last 30 minutes with my son. I knew if these rabbis took that much time to talk with a seven year-old at a prospective member Open House, they must be exceptional people.
My son and I climbed into the car and headed toward home. Without prompting, without asking a question, my son said, “Mom I want to see those guys (the rabbis) again. Can we go back?” Tears welled; I was overwhelmed. I could barely see to drive. I said, “Yes, Alex, as soon as I can make arrangements.”
Suzi Neft is a member of Temple Sinai, Pittsburgh, PA. This post originally appeared on RJ.org on June 29, 2011 as part of the URJ’s Sacred Conversations project.