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Searching for Our Synagogue: Ready or Not, Here We Come

Searching for Our Synagogue: Ready or Not, Here We Come

When I was in first grade, a classmate asked me, “Are you Christmas or Hanukkian?” My response was, “I am more than Hanukkian. I am Jewish.”

Even at age 3, I'm told, I tugged on the pant leg of the temple president when he passed me by while walking around the sanctuary with the Torah. "Hey, mister," I said. "You missed me! I didn’t get to kiss the Torah!”

Clearly, my strong Jewish identity began at an early age, probably because my mom was on the board, and we were always at temple for services, religious school, and family events.  

But that identity was challenged when I became a bat mitzvah in 2001. Preparing for that day was incredibly difficult because of my learning disabilities, and I wondered and worried: If I couldn't pull this off, would I be less of a Jew? I was only 12, but I felt an incredible responsibility to work hard so that nobody knew about my struggles. It was my first real test of being a Jewish adult.

Good news!

I made no mistakes during my bat mitzvah ceremony, and the rabbi even interrupted the service to ask why I hadn't tried out for the choir. But the truth was, I was still a kid, living under my parents’ roof and following their rules. I couldn’t drive or work – other than babysitting – so in what ways was I truly an adult?

As it turns out, the real test of my Jewish identity happened while making decisions for my wedding last fall. It was the first time I had to explore Jewish traditions and discuss my feelings about the ceremony with my future husband. Did we plan to get married in a synagogue? What kind of chuppah did we want? What would our ketubah say to reflect our Jewish connections? Did we want a traditional or modern ceremony? Seven circles or no circles? It was the first time we would be calling the shots, and we realized how important it was to create a meaningful identity together. 

Since that day, we promised we would host a Shabbat dinner every month with friends or family. We also have hosted Hanukkah and Passover in our tiny (and I do mean tiny!) New York City apartment. And even though we are creating new and wonderful traditions, it has turned a typical kids’ question into an adult one: Are we there yet?

Are we at place in our lives where we should be joining our own congregation, instead of tagging along with our parents for the High Holidays? There is the question of dues and affordability, of course, but we are also giving a lot of thought to what we would want from temple life.

We know we want a Jewish address where we can meet other young couples for dinner and social events. We want to feel a sense of belonging and community, like we did at camp. Also on our wish list are laid back Shabbat services (with melodies by Reform Jewish musicians like Debbie Friedman) that inspire us when we sing along, family-style Shabbat dinners outside of temple with good wine and conversation, and programs that challenge us to study history and Torah without feeling like we're back in Hebrew school. Mostly, we want a home away from home that can be relevant through every stage of life, so that when it is time to start a family (and we are in no rush!), our congregation will still be meeting our needs.

We feel strongly that a Reform congregation is the right choice for us. But is this the right time? Indeed, we have decided to begin our search because being part of a Jewish community isn't something that can be dictated by age or stage. We will always need a place to meet people, pray, volunteer, learn, and socialize – not to mention that simchas (joyous occasions) and sorrows often come unannounced.  

So ready or not, Reform congregations, here we come!

Alexandra Gilbert is the WZC campaign director for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Alexandra Gilbert
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