In the front row of the sanctuary, seated in the center so that my eye looks right at the Torah in its arc, I listen to the cantor singing the blessing over the wine. In a flash of my mind I am 18 years old again, at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA surrounded by new Jewish friends who know the entire full blessing so well that I can hear they have sung it every Friday of their lives. I only knew the beginning of the blessing then, and just the words, not the melody; it’s all we had recited in my home growing up, on those occasional Fridays when my mom decided to make chicken and rosemary potatoes for a special dinner and we lit the Shabbat candles. At that dinner during the beginning of college, I tried following along with the long prayer, mostly listening. Now, in the sanctuary of the synagogue in Atlanta where my husband is concluding a five-year tenure as one of its rabbis, preparing to move to a new congregation in a new city in a new state where he will lead a Jewish community, I easily sing along with the familiar words and melody.
All of time coalesces in this moment and I think about what it means to me to be Jewish, to have Judaism as my sanctuary. I remember the first day of freshman orientation, when I walked through a courtyard at UCLA towards the table marked with a sign that read, Jewish Student Union. I unexpectedly found my people that day, and in those years I connected with my Judaism on a new level. I think it was then that I knew without doubt I would marry a Jewish man and raise Jewish children one day.
I didn’t grow up a synagogue kid, but I went to Jewish summer camp for three years, and had come back from one of those summers to tell my parents I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. They hired a retired cantor and every Wednesday of 8th grade, he came to my house and taught me to read Hebrew, taught me all of the prayers in the Shabbat morning service, taught me my Torah portion, and helped me write my dvar Torah. Before our meetings he would sit in his car and smoke a pipe, and his breath smelled like cloves and cinnamon while we studied together. I had my small bat mitzvah at the library of the JCC, where there was a Torah I read from before 40 family members and friends, and we had a party in the garden of our home. My maternal grandmother had died just a few months before, and I felt her presence deeply on that day. My paternal grandmother had come from Italy, and prepared all of the food for the party.
I didn’t do much Jewishly after that, but at UCLA I connected again with this piece of myself that I had never questioned. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and Sephardic refugees who were forced out of Egypt in the 1950s for being Jewish. My Judaism growing up was in the fact that I was born in Jerusalem to parents who had met on a beach in Eilat. It was in the Sephardic and Ashkenazi food my grandmothers made when they came to stay with us from Italy and Israel. It was in stories I heard of relatives who had been rabbis, in my great uncle who prayed daily at the Sephardic Egyptian synagogue in Paris. It was in my cousin’s wedding in Tel Aviv, where I had been a bridesmaid when I was nine years old and danced with IDF soldiers who had come dressed in their fatigues to celebrate their friends. It was in my memory of putting a tiny piece of paper into the Western Wall in Jerusalem with my nine-year-old’s prayer that my great grandmother live forever. It was in the stories I heard of how grand life had been for Jews in Alexandria before Nasser came to power. Stories of my Polish grandmother sewing clothing out of potato sacks in Auschwitz to trade for eggs she could eat.
She would have been so proud of my husband, my maternal grandmother. Proud to know that I had married a man whose family came from the same part of Poland. Proud to see the humility and grace with which he holds the responsibility of being a rabbi, of leading a Jewish community.
All of time coalesces in this moment and I look up at the majestic sanctuary of this historic synagogue in Atlanta, this beautiful Southern city that has been our home for five treasured years. I feel gratitude and love for its people, its history, the way it has held us. I think of my daughter’s bat mitzvah in this sanctuary last year, of the four years of preschool here that have given my son the unquestioned conviction of his Jewishness. I think of the work I have been able to do to connect the Jewish community to the refugee families I worked with professionally. I think how much I am going to miss the Southern hospitality and genteel welcome we have received from everyone here, the sweet lilt in how words are spoken, wondering if Northern Virginia can still be considered the South.
Then, after the senior rabbi has spoken, after others from the community have spoken – all so graciously, so lovingly, so generously towards my husband and our family – my husband goes to the bimah to speak, from this pulpit that is now so familiar to him that it has been strange until this moment for him to sit with me in the front row. From my seat in the center of that front row, I watch him, I hear his words, and tears stream down my face, boundless love and pride burst from inside me.
In words spoken and unspoken, he says to me, We did it. This thing we set out to do together at the very beginning of our relationship 18 years ago, when I first told you I wanted to become a rabbi… We did it, and look how beautiful it is! All of time coalesces in this moment and I feel my grandmothers sitting on either side of me, agreeing with me as I reply silently: Yes we did, babe. Yes we did. And yes, it is beautiful. So beautiful.
After he spoke to the congregation, a standing ovation from our community showered him with the kind of love that fills every well of reserve our family is going to need as we take this next step forward in time.
The entire evening was a life-giving moment. My well is full.
I am going to miss this place, these people, so much. The 18 years leading to this moment have not all been easy. But they have all been so important. Our five years in Atlanta have been our best. I leave here deeply satisfied and grateful. I am so proud of my husband. I am proud of us. I am proud of our family. I can see how every single moment before this one is the moment that brought us here. To this precious place in time where we could pause …Well full. Deep breath. Here we go… before our next adventure together.