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It’s a Synagogue, Not a Torture Chamber

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]

I’m 63 and Just Joined My First Shul

I am a 63 year-old secular Jew. (I call myself a “food Jew.”) I recently joined my first shul, a local Reform synagogue. They are holding a Shabbat dinner for new members after Friday night services in three weeks and I would like to attend. Unfortunately, my husband doesn’t.

He was not really raised with any dominant faith — his father was Episcopal, mother Buddhist, and he also studied in India for a year in college — and he is not a fan of organized religion. Now that I joined a synagogue, he is acting like I joined a Moonie cult and is refusing to join me at the dinner because it also involves attending Friday night services. He thinks “we’re” trying to convert him. It’s worth noting that he has never had an issue attending Passover Seders, or break-fasts or any other home-based observance, so this is really about stepping foot in a shul. How can I get him to attend this dinner? —A Newbie in New Hampshire.

Remind Him This is New and Strange to You Too

JAMES PONET: I think you tell your husband why you just joined your first shul, specifically how your membership serves, soothes, and challenges you.

I imagine — no doubt projecting my own fantasies to which you are welcome — that you might say something like this: I find as I age that I wish to feel a living connection to a community. Since I am a Jew, I already feel connected to the wildly diverse group that still somehow believes itself to be the lineal descendent of the Israelites who are depicted in the Jewish equivalent of the Mahabharata, the ancient Hebrew Bible. I find a curious comfort in letting myself belong to an entity that is larger than me, older than me, that cherishes a body of traditional wisdom for living that summons me to joy in life, hope for healing, commitment to friendship, solidarity, and humor. Oh, yes and to good food also, such as will no doubt be served at the shul after the Friday night service.

I’d like to share this with you. I do not need you to become a Jew, to like the rabbi, or the liturgy. But your being with me will help me to feel more comfortable inside a place that is new and strange to me. Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet some people we will like. And afterwards because you will have tasted it with me, we will be able to discuss the textures, flavors, dissonances and resonances. You know how important that is to me.

James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 4 grandchildren.

Get Him to Help Unfold a Few Chairs, Seriously

LAUREL SNYDER: I think the trick here is to downplay the importance of that dinner. Often, in a moment like this, religion turns into something BIGGER than we mean to make it.

I’d explain that this is simply an experience you yourself want to have, like yoga, or hiking. I’d make it clear that you aren’t asking him to convert, or even attend with you weekly, but simply to come with you this once (and maybe a few other times during the year), as your supportive partner. Because you’re new and don’t want to go alone. And because you would do the same thing for him and go to a sporting event, work party, or concert, even if it wasn’t your favorite thing to do. Ultimately, he needs to understand that this about YOU, not him. YOU’RE the one who wants this, and you’re asking him to help you go.

When I got married, I was working for Hillel, and my own partner had similar discomfort with the religious services he suddenly found himself attending. I was annoyed, but his response also seemed reasonable to me. Synagogue is foreign to a non-Jew, and also (let’s be honest) boring if you don’t care about it, or know what’s going on.

The thing that seemed to help the most in our case was when I would find him a job to do. He’d operate the grill at a picnic, or set up the chairs for dinner while we finished services. These things gave him a purpose, and having a purpose made him feel much better about being there. I imagine your partner might feel the same.

Laurel Snyder is the author of books like “Bigger than a Bread Box” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher.” Find her online at laurelsnyder.com or on Twitter @laurelsnyder.

Nobody Has Tried to Convert Me Yet

JIM KEEN: Your situation reminds me of when I joined my first shul. My wife had done most of the investigating of local synagogues and recommended that we try the Reform temple close to our house. I didn’t know what to expect, but told her that I would try it out with her.

Fifteen years later and I have loved so much about being a part of the synagogue’s community. Today, I am very comfortable calling myself a member even if I still don’t call myself Jewish. I am a Protestant, and nobody has tried to convert me yet.

Over the years, I was surprised to find that different people had joined this synagogue for various reasons. Some members enjoyed the religious aspects. Others preferred the social action. I was even more astounded to learn that quite a few didn’t even believe in God at all — they simply enjoyed spending time with the other congregants during the many temple-sponsored activities.

In addition to religion, our temple has a group for adults that meets monthly for social, educational, and cultural activities, including hiking, biking, and food and wine tasting. I recommend that you check into what your synagogue has to offer along the lines of your husband’s interests. This may be a good way to entice him to go along with you.

Jim Keen is the author of “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” He has been in an interfaith relationship for 28 years, and has been an active participant with his wife in raising their two Jewish daughters. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Jim teaches in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

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