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A New Jew Showing up for Shabbat with a Resolute Welcome

A New Jew Showing up for Shabbat with a Resolute Welcome

Congregants welcoming Shabbat with arms linked together

I’ve been having a hard time expressing how the murders at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue have hit me, partly because I would have been horrified even before I became Jewish, but mostly because I understand there’s nothing unique about my grief except that the fear imbedded in it is new to me.

When I first became involved in Judaism, I was surprised by how aware Jews were that they could become targets of societal violence. I’d grown up among Protestant World War II veterans, not Holocaust survivors, and I took safety for granted. I also took American progress toward inclusion for granted. With hindsight, I could be scornful of this version of myself, but honestly, I was lucky – naive, but lucky.

Before Pittsburgh, I understood that I’d been naive, but I still hoped for the best. Now, I am sad and angry and resolute.

I converted to Judaism in June 2017, after Trump had been elected president despite his obvious racism and willingness to stir up anger in a shockingly irresponsible way. I saw that things could get bad. I was the wife of a Jewish man and the mother of a Jewish daughter. Even if I didn’t convert, I couldn’t pretend to be safe from whatever might come next. Choosing Judaism was a way to stand up and be counted – to push back against a small, utterly wrong vision of what it means to be an American.

More importantly, I had personal reasons for converting.

I saw myself as hovering at the edges of Judaism even though I was deeply involved in life at a synagogue that was happy to have my involvement regardless of whether I was Jewish. My temperament lent itself to observing from the edges, but that vision of myself had stopped serving me. It was time to say, “This isn’t just what I do, this is who I am.”

I reached that moment in large part because of what synagogue life has meant to me and my family over years spent moving from place to place. We go to synagogue to worship, yes, but also because our people are there. That’s true for all of us – even our teenager. It’s a place where we do meaningful volunteer work, and it’s a place where we have felt safe and we hope inch-by-inch will come to feel safe again.

But for now we are here. Friday night, I took my fear with me to services. I needed a job to do – even a small one – to push back against it. So I stood at the entrance to the sanctuary wearing my board of trustees name tag and I welcomed the people coming in – many of them people who don’t usually come to pray on Friday nights. The most healing thing I could think to do was to say hello, and welcome, and Shabbat shalom. And then we all went in and said our Friday prayers, and reminded ourselves who we are.

I am new to being a Jew, but I am in this too, and I will do what I can to shine a light at a dark time, and to hold tightly to the things that made me love Judaism in the first place.

Pam Chernoff is a freelance writer and editor. She is a member of Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, NY.

Pam Chernoff
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