A Rabbi’s Request Changed My Life. Really.

Wed, 01/29/2014 - 2:33pm -- Synagogue Counc...

By Sandra Slavet, Secretary, Board of Directors, Synagogue Council of Massachusetts (SCM)

In the summer of 1987, I received a call from Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, the rabbi of a temple just over the Randolph line where I lived. She told me that there were deaf members of her congregation, and that she was looking for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for the High Holy days. She had received my name as a Jewish interpreter from the Mass Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

At the time, I didn’t know there was a temple just over the Randolph line, nor did I know women could be rabbis. I explained that although I was, in fact, Jewish and an interpreter, I would not use those two words in the same sentence. I told her the last time I had been to temple was my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, in 1960.

She asked me if I knew what Hamotzi was (the prayer for bread): I said, of course, I know Hamotzi. She asked if I knew what Kiddush was (the prayer for wine): I said, of course, I know what Kiddush is. She asked what ASL sign I use for Bible: I said I know enough not to use the sign “Jesus book” in temple. She said I was already the most qualified person she had spoken to....I came to Yom Kippur services brushing the crumbs off my shirt.

Growing up, I never felt comfortable in the temple my family belonged to. I was too young to articulate it, and the word “feminism” had not yet been coined, but I felt early on that I did not have a voice in Judaism. I felt- as a girl- like an outsider, like an “also ran.” At age 11, after my brother’s bar mitzvah (which felt more like a coronation), I decided synagogue was not a place for me and by extension, Judaism.

I had spent a great deal of time, as an adult, interpreting in different churches, and when I was in Protestant churches, I felt something that made me wish I could feel what those people were feeling: a sense of spirituality that felt warm, personal and authentic...and while I did not believe a word of it, I wanted what those people had.

I had four kids, a husband who was raised Catholic, and a deep sense of spirituality that I did not know how to fit into organized religion: a little “New Age,” a little Herman Hesse, a little Zen - and no committees. My husband and I tried to build a home filled with warmth, commitment to social justice, and rituals that we created to give a structure to the values we wanted to share with our children.

Then, that day in 1987 when I went to Temple Beth David at the request (more like pleading) of Rabbi Goldstein, three things happened that changed my life:

  • First, I heard a woman’s voice – literally - chanting Torah. Not just a woman, but a strong feminist, and I thought if Rabbi Goldstein could find comfort, authenticity, and a sense connection to Judaism, perhaps, I had been looking in the wrong places;
  • Second, though I did not go to temple as a child, I did go to Jewish summer camp. During that first service with Rabbi Goldstein, I was stunned to realize I knew every prayer. It all came rushing back to me and, as much as I had thought of my self as a stranger in synagogue, I felt like I was coming home; and
  • Third, and I think, most important: I felt something in that small synagogue that I had never felt in temple before. It was that spirit, that ruach that I had felt in those churches...but here it was in shul! People praying- not just the mumbling that I remembered in the synagogue of my youth - but prayer, honest prayer, prayer that expressed joy and struggle; Prayer, with a capital P, that seemed authentic. Prayer that felt like it was mine - and I was beginning to realize how much I had missed it.

That same year, at a large synagogue in Boston, my family attended the bar mitzvah of a close friend. It was the first time my husband and kids had been to a Jewish service. During the Torah portion, my oldest daughter - then age 11, the same age I was when I left temple life - leaned over and said she felt very connected to this and wanted to study Hebrew, have a Bat Mitzvah, and become involved in Jewish life.

Later that afternoon, when we arrived home, we all talked about what it would mean to get involved in a synagogue community. I explained that Hebrew school and being Jewish wasn’t like dancing school, flute lessons, or the hundred other activities the kids did for 10 weeks, then quit. It was real and would become an essential part of our lives. If this was to be our family’s spiritual path, then we would ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk.’ It would mean celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and it would mean that it would not end at the Bat Mitzvah.

After much consideration, my family joined that small temple near our home. I came that first Sunday to settle my four kids into religious school and, by the end of the morning, I was on three committees. I realized for the first time that so much of what I wanted to create for my family had already been created: it was called Judaism. I haven’t looked back.

By my second year as a congregant, I was teaching religious school (which I continued to do for the next 20 years), taking classes at Hebrew College (so that I could be at least one step ahead of my 7th grade students) and found myself and my family immersed in the Jewish community and in Jewish life. When my husband, Joe, and I had been married for 18 years, he converted to Judaism... and he hasn’t looked back either!

I became a regular at Shabbat services, weekly Torah study and ongoing life-long Jewish learning, both at my synagogue and in the greater Boston Jewish community. I serve on the Board of Trustees of my temple and am currently serving as a vice president. (I recently joined a new synagogue after having served as president of my former shul.) So here I am starting again, but at least this time I know what to expect!

I am a Me’ah graduate and continue to study with amazing Jewish scholars in the area, including at Hebrew College and in SCM’s Daf Yomi class. I am proud to serve on the SCM board, and as a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim. And my life’s work is as Director of Jewish Life for People with Disabilities at Jewish Family and Children’s Service.

Oh, and my Jewish journey has taken me to Israel twice, most recently on an amazing SCM trip exploring Jewish religious pluralism there. We met and learned from some of the most influential and dynamic teachers and leaders, and each speaker brought profound insight and knowledge to the discussion on the complexities of cultivating a Jewish state in which listening and supporting different voices simultaneously reflect the challenge of diversity and affirm the beauty, history and culture that is Israel today.

When I reflect on where this journey began, so many years ago, and where I am today, I am amazed to think how central Judaism has become to my identity. What amazes me even more is that I got here, pretty much, by accident. And I am forever grateful that I stumbled onto this path.