My apologies to all the wonderful supporters of my blog! I have not posted much recently as I have been really busy with the High Holidays and, before that, our daughter’s bat mitzvah! Over the next few days, I plan to post a lot of material from the High Holidays. I also plan to post my thoughts to my daughter as she became a bat mitzvah.
Selichot, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were truly inspiring for all of us at Ramat Shalom. Below, I have posted four of five wonderful presentations given by members of my synagogue who spoke on Selichot about the power of belonging. Once I get the remaining- I will post it as well!
The words of Peggy Angelici:
Shik-seh….Goy…. non-Jew….Convert. For me, those words were used to mean; you don’t belong, you’re not one of us.
For those of you who may not know me, I’m Peggy Angelici. I was born to an Irish mother, Margaret Marie Ludwig, and a very Italian father, Luigi Galliano Angelici. I am the youngest of five and grew up surrounded by my large extended family in Pittsburgh; therefore, the feeling of not belonging was never a question. I was raised in a non practicing Catholic home celebrating Christmas and Easter, never questioning the minimal connection to my religion.
Let me fast forward 18 years when I entered college in Michigan. I know this next statement may be difficult to believe, but it’s true. It was there that I met my first Jewish friend. I went to several Hillel services on campus and it was my newly found Jewish friends that I found myself drawn toward. In the last semester of my senior year I was three credits shy of my BA degree and asked friends for recommendations on which psychology Professor was the most interesting. The unanimous response was Dr. Gold. At the risk of boring you with details, I married “Dr. Gold” (despite the fact that I was only awarded a B+ in his class)!
When I began dating my then professor, my father began inquiring about him, and the inevitable question came…..”by the way Peggy, what’s this Steve guys last name”? As I braced myself, he let out several Italian expletives that I won’t repeat and then he said, “Jesus Christ Peggy, he’s a JEW”! My heart sank as I felt the bond between myself and my family slip away. For the first time I felt the fear of not belonging.
As the saying goes, “when one door closes, another door opens”. My mother and father-in-law, Lenny and Shirlee Gold opened that door for me. The intensity of my own fathers’ negative reaction to me dating a Jew was matched equally with the intensity of my in-laws acceptance of me. In that moment my fears of not belonging because I was not a Jew had temporarily disappeared. They accepted and loved me even though I was a shik-seh. During the next several years, I began studying Judaism and after I married, I decided I wanted to convert and raise my future children as Jews.
As I began my conversion process new fears arose. It became increasingly clear to me that I did not look Jewish nor did I know how to act or sound Jewish.
I listened with great intensity to my in-laws and tried to learn as much Yiddish as possible.
Although I couldn’t afford to purchase my wardrobe at boutiques like my mother-in-law, I did try to replicate her dignified and refined look. I began to feel more confident that I could hold my own in a conversation, (throwing in a few Yiddish words and phrases), and I was dressing more stylishly, but WAIT……. what about my hair!!! I have Shik-seh hair! There was only one solution…… a perm! I got the perm and prayed the massive curls would deter people from noticing my tiny nose because there was nothing I could do about that!
As I stood on the Bima in Edison New Jersey at my conversion ceremony 31 years ago, reciting the blessings flawlessly; I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was in that moment that I felt I truly belonged.
My story isn’t over just yet……………….
I had one more hurdle to jump…..finding a synagogue to join. I was terrified! All the previous fears of not belonging, not being accepted, not knowing enough, and not looking or acting Jewishly enough flooded back as I walked through the doors of Ramat Shalom. This was 30 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday.
As I entered the sanctuary the kindest, friendliest, warmest woman came running to me with a beautiful smile and introduced herself.” Hi, she said, I’m Nancy” (yes, our own Nancy Holstein). She took my hand and began introducing me to every possible person there. I remember praying that she wouldn’t let go and she didn’t until she safely seated me with other congregants. I left synagogue that evening with tears streaming down my cheeks truly understanding the feeling of belonging. I knew that night, 30 years ago, I was home.
The words of Lisa Van Gorder Cohen:
In 1996, American poet David Whyte wrote a beautiful poem called ‘The House of Belonging’. The last verse reads:
This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.
There is no house
like the house of belonging.
In Whyte’s poem, his house of belonging was a physical home but more than that, it was a space that he chould share with friends and a space that he could experience love.
As I consider my life through the lense of these words, I feel that my house of belonging is certainly with my own family in our home, but also with this synagogue and the Jewish community.
Some of you know my relationship with Judaism, and I know some of you have a story similar to mine. I was not raised Jewish and I have never converted to Judaism yet raised two wonderful Jewish children. A bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah, fulfilling a promise I made over twenty years ago to Steven, my husband, before we were married.
Truth be known, I made this promise without hesitation and without much thought about the impact it would have on me. I made this promise because I was in love and impressed with the his conviction that Steven wanted to raise his children Jewish to honor the sacrifices past generations. I was not un-comfortable with setting my religion aside without fully adopting his. My upbringing had a lot to do with my attitude. I was raised in a military family, and by the time I was 20 I had lived at 18 different addresses. So I was accustom to stepping into unfamiliar situations, I was used to feeling like an outside observer. Maybe even comfortable with it.
I didn’t realized at that time, what this promise would really mean. Of course there has been the time demands of torah school and getting ready for the bar & bat mitzvahs. But I have started to measure time by the rhythms of Jewish life & Jewish holidays. I think I really suprised my family last year when I didn’t put up a Christmas tree.
Most unexpectedly, however, I didn’t know that how comfortable I would come to feel in this community. I don’t know exactly when it happened but I feel like an insider. Honestly, I don’t even feel like I’m not-Jew any more, I feel like I belong.
I will finish by telling you something more about David Whyte’s poem. He wrote this poem about a lonely time in his life, which is something each of us can relate to one way or another. Yet, the poem is ultimately a poem of hope for life and hope for love, which is found through a sense of belonging.
I am grateful for the hope I feel through the sense of belonging I have here in this community. And I wish for each of you the blessings of hope and a house of belonging.
The words of Sharon Jacobs-Brown:
“To what Temple do you belong?”, I am sometimes asked. My family “joined” this Synagogue in 1994 when my daughter started Torah School. So we have been “members” of the Ramat Shalom “community” for 20 years. Until recently I never considered why we use those words: “belong”, “join”, “membership” and “community” to describe our affiliation with a synagogue. But then my Mom passed away a year and a half ago, and I learned the value of BELONGING.
We buried my Mom in Rhode Island, had a meal after the funeral and received guests the next day, but no prayers were said at that shiva, as per my Dad’s wishes.
When we returned to Florida, I wanted to sit shiva here. I told myself the reason was so that my children could experience a proper Rabbi-led shiva minyan and because my Mom would have wanted it that way. I discovered that it was really for me.
My Dad wanted shiva to be at his house in Boca Raton. Rabbi Andrew was so kind to come all the way up there, and he was very comforting. My Mother’s 85 year old neighbor volunteered to organize food. She didn’t think my Mom’s elderly friends would come out at night, and I hoped to have even a minyan show up, so she only put out desserts, no food. What I couldn’t have foreseen was that numerous people from Ramat Shalom would drive all the way to Boca for my Mom’s shiva, and for my family. I was surprised and profoundly touched. I hadn’t even expected many of my closest friends to drive to Boca Raton on a week – night. And later Ramat families sent their condolences in cards, emails and donations. I was overwhelmed by the way people reached out.
Some of the Ramat Shalom people that came were friends that I’d made at Ramat over the years. But some were what Rabbi Sarah once called “‘oneg friends” – people you enjoy talking to around the oneg table or at Temple meetings, but you’ve never been out to dinner with them, and might not even know their names. I feel so grateful to everyone who drove so far to Boca, and otherwise reached out because it made me feel part of a caring group to which I “Belong.”
It was not until I had a loss that I understood Ramat’s suggestion to reach out to bereaved families. Previously I’d thought it would be creepy to walk into a shiva home that I’d never been invited into before. And I didn’t understand how my presence could possible comfort the bereaved if I hadn’t known their loved one and barely knew them. But it was incredibly comforting to me in a way that is indescribable, perhaps because it was a showing of the Synagogue to which I “belong”. It is, after all, the people who are Ramat Shalom. It is the people of Ramat Shalom to whom I “belong.”
After my Mom’s death I felt like the earth beneath my feet was not solid any more. I felt unmoored. I anticipated that I would miss my Mom, but I hadn’t expected to feel so adrift, because I do have my husband, two children, family and friends.
I was searching for something. I joined Ancestry.com to build a family tree. I learned that pogroms in Romania forced my maternal great grandfather to reluctantly abandon his successful grain Mills, a home with his cherished piano, and his place in that Romanian Jewish community to move his wife and six small children to safety in America.
For the year following my Mom’s death, I attended Friday night services at Ramat to say Kaddish for her (and, sadly, for my dear friend, Jody Dreher, who passed away a few months after my Mom). My wonderful husband, Ron, came with me every Friday, even though he has an aversion to services – dating back to childhood experiences of mandatory attendance dressed in a suit. So I was so appreciative that he accompanied me without me asking. During that year of attending services I felt warmth and companionship in praying together with the Ramat Shalom community, and Cantor Debbie’s music uplifted me from my sad thoughts.
A year later Rabbi Andrew patiently advised me about the inscription on my Mother’s headstone and contributed readings to include in an unveiling service. He was always available through his many social media outlets as well as in person. I can now see a wise purpose to the Jewish traditions of sitting shiva, and saying Kaddish and Yiskor together with other Jewish people who form a community that embraces the bereaved.
Lately, although I’ve never been to Israel and never called myself a Zionist, I have found myself feeling connected to Israel as the media condemns her as “the aggressor” for protecting her citizens from Hamas assaults. If I presently lived in Europe, I would probably move to Israel just as my Great Grandparents had fled Romania from pogroms. Israel is my safety net, because I also “belong” to that group, which would welcome and protect my family simply because we are Jewish.
When asked what is important in life, I wouldn’t usually mention that I strive for a sense of “belonging.” And during the past 20 years of Ramat Shalom membership, I wouldn’t have said that “belonging” was my reason for joining. I would have said I joined to send my children to Hebrew School to become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, or to go to High Holiday services or some other pragmatic reason. But now I know that the language that we use to describe synagogue “membership” – ‘joining”, community”, and “belonging” – are the true benefits that I receive from Ramat Shalom, the worldwide Jewish community and Israel.
On Selichot the skies open wide and G-d hears our prayers clearly. Tonight I will pray for the good health and safety of my family, my Ramat Shalom community, the worldwide Jewish community and Israel, because I “belong” to each of them and they “belong” to me.
The words of Aaron Sortal:
What does a high schooler know about belonging? Well tonight I am going to give you three examples: high school, Judaism and community. To me, belonging is about finding your niche where you are the happiest. In high school you have to belong to the right classes, cliques, sports, and clubs because we all want to belong to that right college. I found my group in my school’s broadcast club, but belonging doesn’t come with the snap of a finger. When I joined as an intern in January 2009 I was an outsider. I didn’t know what segment to do, what editing software to use, or what camera to shoot with. I was a deer in the headlights. I didn’t even know how to hold a microphone for a standup. Like most things, finding that little part of your world takes time. Look at where I am now! I have exceeded all of my expectations I had, I found my little niche as the school’s weatherman telling the rainy South Florida weather every Tuesday and Friday live from room 7122. But I wouldn’t have gotten there if I didn’t argue, or like my parents say, were stubborn with the leaders ahead of me. The people that were in the crew made me feel apart of something, they helped me grow in my future journalism career and as a person. They included me in everything possible. It really did make me feel like I belong to something.
After my Bar Mitzvah, my Jewish part of my life declined a bit. Judaism became a small part of my personality. However, when I joined BBYO, and international Jewish youth group, I realized it was one thing I know I am. BBYO stresses the importance of the Jewish movement, and I needed that. I needed to remember who I was and what I loved to do. The people in BBYO make it all worth it! At the first program I went to, everyone wanted to know my name and be friends with me. Then after my first convention, I really felt that I belonged, everyone knew my name and were friends with me. They made me truthfully feel apart of this movement. BBYO also gave me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t really think about doing.
Two years and 161 days ago to be exact, I began an incredible journey that made me feel like I belonged more than any other experience I’ve had. I participated in the March of the Living with the BBYO Delegation. The March of the Living is a two-week experience through the concentration camps in Poland and the beautiful state of Israel. When I decided to go on the march I didn’t know what to expect. However, I did not expect it to make me feel the way I did about the importance of the Jewish movement. On holocaust remembrance day, every march participant wears their blue March of the Living jacket and walks the “death march” from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The march is less than three miles, but those three miles are life changing. When we went over an overpass you could see everyone that was marching, it was a sea of blue that you can never forget. This moment made me realize how many Jewish people there are. It’s not like I didn’t know we are big in numbers, but numbers are only a thing. Seeing all those people from around the world, made me feel like I belonged to something bigger, something that I am extremely proud to be apart of.
Belonging isn’t just about fitting in, but it is where you find yourself the happiest. I have found that and it makes me proud to say I belong to the Jewish movement, BBYO, and my school’s broadcast news station. However, I didn’t fit in just like that, belonging takes work and you must want to be apart of the group. But, now all of these aspects make me feel like I belong, but also are aspects of who I am.. I eventually want to be on Good Morning America saying: “Well South Florida you have a rainy day ahead of you with 80 percent chance of rain tonight and a 50 percent chance of rain tomorrow, well until next time this has been your weather update!”