The Woman Who Helped a Methodist Join a Synagogue

My future inquisitor is now 15 months old. As of a week ago, she excitedly shouts “Bat, Bat” when I say, “Tonight’s Shabbat (the Sabbath).”

What she means–you’ll just have to take my word for this–is “Grape juice? I love grape juice!”

It’s a start. Religion boiled down into a weekly sip of juice. As for the deep questions that will come later, I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

It isn’t easy being a Jewish mother when you’re a Methodist.

But happily, when the tough question that pops out of my daughter Sarah’s mouth isn’t on one of my mental note cards of important information to impart, and I’ve managed to confuse or upset her, Dawn Kepler will have a ready response–or at least some reassurance–and I’ll get off the phone feeling like maybe I’m not such a bad mom after all.

Dawn runs Building Jewish Bridges , the interfaith program of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay–the area across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco that spans Oakland, Berkeley, and points north and south. Thanks to her, those mental note cards have spaces for different answers for different ages. They also have a reminder to listen closely, and a notation that it’s OK for me to answer, “What do you think?” Another says, “Forgive yourself.”

Those note cards got there through numerous trips to interfaith programs organized by Dawn–a panel of parents talking about how they were raising their kids, an eight-week couples’ discussion group, a program that featured the grown or almost-grown children of interfaith couples, another program about preserving your own traditions as the non-Jewish parent in a Jewish household, three years of attending an interfaith havurah she got off the ground.

In the almost four years I’ve lived in the East Bay, I’ve seen Dawn work her magic in settings large and small. She isn’t a psychotherapist, but like any good counselor she meets people where they are, gives them a safe space to figure out what they really need, and helps them to get where they need to go. It isn’t easy. Regardless of the partners’ backgrounds, religion is fraught with issues of identity, loyalty to one’s heritage, and hopes for one’s children. But I’ve seen people leave programs she’s run looking like the weight of the world had been taken off their shoulders.

Her main points are simple but difficult. Make choices. Follow up on them. Figure out what values are most important to you. Teach them to your children.

When my husband Joel and I started attending Dawn’s programs, we were questioning how more than what. We had decided to raise a Jewish family before we got married, but we needed help figuring out exactly what that would mean in practice. When we joined the couples’ discussion group at the end of 2003 we were looking as much for social connections as for help in figuring out how to conduct our religious life as a family.

We knew the children we didn’t yet have would be Jewish, and we had started to look for a synagogue.

But as the eight-week session progressed, Dawn helped me articulate something I hadn’t yet realized I needed–to find a way to be my unambiguously Christian self in a Jewish community. Not because I wanted to try to change anyone, but because I’m fully capable of feeling so self-conscious about being different that I try to hide. Joel and I were both certain that we wanted to find a synagogue that would be ours as a family, not just somewhere that he conducted his religious life while I conducted mine elsewhere. We were looking for community.

I wish I could point to a moment of epiphany–I’ve certainly been present for the moment when the clouds part for others–but instead what I got was a creeping certainty that I could choose to be comfortable being different and see where it took me.

It has taken me into the arms of a loving, diverse, small congregation where it’s impossible to be anonymous, and where although I am aware of being different, I’m not sheepish about it. It has helped me be confident enough to roll up my sleeves and ask that most powerful of questions: “How can I help?” Some of the answers to that question have surprised me.

Every year around the High Holidays, Dawn writes a thank you note to the rabbi who, much to her surprise, told her in a meeting with the congregation’s president that she’d agreed to coordinate interfaith programs. She’s not the only one who’s grateful.

Thank you, Dawn. I’ll be calling you when Sarah starts asking questions about religion. But before that, I’ll call to ask if you’ve heard the one about the Methodist mom who’s about to start teaching Jewish Sunday school.

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