She made a choice in life, and I respect her right to choose to practice (or not practice) a religion that best suits her beliefs. That doesn’t mean I think a pastor should be speaking from a synagogue pulpit on Shabbat.
By Madison Jackson
It’s February 2023 and I’m at Friday night Shabbat services at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had been there a few times before when there was a young adult oneg following services, much like the one that would happen tonight. The very first time I had gone to services there, I heard my great-uncle’s name, Paul Pretter, read out loud at the end of the service, when a list of that week’s yahrzeits was recited. For a moment I was stunned. Then a sense of warmth enveloped me, I felt re-connected all over again to a part of my family. My great-aunt and great-uncle had been members of this synagogue, which I knew, but it was pure coincidence that I first attended Temple Sinai on the weekend when I would hear the name of my own relative.
I always have mixed feelings when I enter a Reform synagogue. Joy upon simply being in a synagogue, a familiar, beautiful space. Pride at the large number of people who have chosen to come to services. Reassurance when I hear the rabbi say, “Please rise in body or spirit.” Until I encountered this synagogue in Pittsburgh, I had only ever heard rabbis say “please rise” during the parts of prayer where we are asked to stand. I’ve looked around the room, at those who are physically unable to stand, and thought about how left out they must feel in those moments. Then I’ve thought about those whose inability to stand for long periods of time is invisible. No one should ever be made to feel excluded or called out, or be questioned by others, in a space of prayer (or anywhere for that matter). It’s a breath of fresh air to hear a religious leader specifically invite people to rise in whatever way works for them and acknowledge that not physically standing does not mean someone isn’t embracing the meaning of why we stand.
Another feeling – comfort. At Temple Sinai, the misheberach section is immediately followed by an opportunity for congregants to share good news such as birthdays, anniversaries, accomplishments at work or in school, volunteer opportunities, successes. I love the idea of sad moments being accompanied by good moments, and of bringing the community closer together through news. Yet, when the rabbi holds the microphone out towards me, and asks me to pass it down the aisle to someone raising her hand to share news, I am uncomfortable holding and passing an electronic item in a synagogue on Shabbat. I think of my Orthodox friends who would say they couldn’t hold it, or rather couldn’t use it, and although I don’t identify as Orthodox feel like I am doing something wrong.
And then, a pastor from a local church, gets up to give the sermon. Something about a pastor taking the place of Jewish clergy during a centerpiece point of the service, during a time when rabbis traditionally deliver an address often related to that week’s Torah portion, makes me uneasy. It is weird to hear Jesus spoken about in a sanctuary. It is weird to hear the pastor say, “Christians need Jesus, but Jews don’t.” It feels unintentionally preachy, even though we don’t call sermons preaching. Yet, the specific pastor who is speaking, makes my thoughts and emotions even more complicated.
She tells us of a time when she was locked out of her house and had to call a locks-smith. The locks-smith happened to originally be from Tel Aviv, Israel, and as he worked to open her front door, he noticed a mezuzah on a wall inside her house.
“You’re Jewish!” he cried emphatically, excited about what they shared.
“Well, not exactly,” the pastor said looking down at the stiff, white clerical collar around her neck.
“Is your mom Jewish?” he asked.
“Yes, but my dad is Lutheran, and I work at a Christian church,” the pastor replied.
“But your mom is Jewish, so you are Jewish!” the locksmith insisted, trying to encourage her to join him at synagogue for the upcoming Yom Kippur fast.
“Would you accept Jewtheran?” the pastor asked.
Had I been privy to this conversation, I’m sure I would have nodded and laughed, but inside I know I would not be comfortable with the usage of the term. If you are Jewish and Lutheran, then say you are Jewish and Lutheran. “Jewtheran” implies there is a religion that mixes the beliefs of the two, and there is not. If there was, it would not be Judaism.
In the specific case of the pastor, who doesn’t identify as being Jewish, I would agree that she isn’t Jewish. And yet, in the moment I hear her story, and in discussing her story with peers, I hear myself saying yes, she is Jewish. Reflecting on this instinct, I realize that maybe I would prefer to say that she was born Jewish but isn’t Jewish currently. Why call her Jewish just because her mom is Jewish, if nothing she does in life is Jewish, if in fact everything she does in life is fully devoted to another religion? She made a choice in life, and I respect her right to choose to practice (or not practice) a religion that best suits her beliefs. That doesn’t mean I think a pastor should be speaking from a synagogue pulpit on Shabbat.
A few weeks later I’m entering another place of prayer. I’ve climbed up the creaky wooden staircase of a house, to a Chabad Young Professionals space called “The Loft.” I peer into the entrance of the room where Friday night services are happening and see rows of men in front of me. I try to figure out how to get to the women’s side without walking through the men’s side. This is an Orthodox service, although I happen to know most of the attendees are not Orthodox. One man who I’ve never seen before points his finger behind me. He motions for me to walk backwards, through a different room and then around, which will lead me directly into the women’s section. I am grateful for the direction. A few seconds later and I likely would have embarrassed myself walking through the men’s side.
I place my winter coat on the back of a plastic chair and ask the rebbetzin where I can get a siddur. She sends her daughter, who can’t be older than five, to bring me one. I feel uncomfortable as I always do in Chabad, but siddur in hand, finally settling in one spot, I try to focus on the service.
There are over thirty young adults, in their 20s and 30s, powerfully singing Carlebach tunes out loud together. I’ve missed this type of community young adult prayer so much. It’s been several years since I’ve been in a room of only young adults who chose to pray, and not only pray, but do so loudly and proudly. I’m astonished. Where did all these people come from? A brown, portable wooden mechitza separates me from whatever guy is sitting on the chair immediately on the other side of it. My body sways side to side without my realizing it. The music is so beautiful. I feel calm. I feel stressed. I wish the other women would stop whispering and put their all into the prayer like the men who are jumping up and down and clapping. I don’t want the prayers to end. I feel tears come to my eyes as I think about my favorite people to spend Shabbat with. What can I say, I’m emotional, always.
It’s now a Wednesday evening in March, a little after 7:00 pm, when I walk in the entrance of the boarded-up building, hesitantly, and notice the brown paper taped up against the windows as if to say stay out, this is a site of crime. I reject holding the cold surface of the doorhandle, fearing that touch would resurface memories which would resurface longing and pain and an inability to let go. Inside, the ceiling light to my left flickers on and off, electric upkeep seemingly long-ago discarded, dimming out, like the time left to be inside this synagogue. Large silver-foil looking tubes fill the hall; the insides of the walls pour their guts out into the lobby.
I’ve stepped foot in the actual Tree of Life synagogue building for my first time since before the shooting. For almost five years the Conservative congregation has temporarily been praying out of Levy Hall, in Rodef Shalom Congregation, a historic synagogue a half hour-walk from the Tree of Life building. I’ve prayed with Tree of Life periodically throughout those years, Yom Kippur and Sukkot services, several Shabbat services, a Hanukkah celebration, and other occasions. But now, as construction is soon to begin on the new synagogue complex, the congregation is preparing to say goodbye to their building and are giving away many of their plaques, books, artwork, and furniture.
I feel like my body has been taken over by a ghost, like it is being pulled in two directions. On the outside I assume I look perfectly normal, but on the inside, I’m struggling, my arms flailing back and forth. Although only in my imagination, I hear my uncle’s brother, the once rabbi of Tree of Life, call my name with a booming voice and a wry smile, chuckling as he greets me. I walk into the kiddush room and see my friends standing in line at the buffet table filling their plates with bagels and fruit and motioning me towards a white-clothed covered table they saved for us. I climb the stairs and look into the sanctuary. My cousin stands on the Bima, at the podium, chanting from the Torah. But it’s the books, the rooms and rooms and walls and tables of books, that make me fall to the ground, weeping. My hands over my face, mouth agape, trembling. I sink further onto my knees surrounded by all this cultural heritage, Jewish history, years of stories and information that created a library and a people. My people.
That following Saturday I read Torah for Tree of Life at Rodef Shalom. It felt so good to spend Friday afternoon in preparation, chanting the verses, the tropes, memorizing which vowels went with which Hebrew words. Between the pandemic and moving cities, it had been a very long time since I last read Torah and it was refreshing to finally have the opportunity again. As I sat in the sanctuary, in a row by myself at first, a feeling of being an imposter kicked in. Some members of my family had been members at Tree of Life for years. My great aunt and great uncle and second cousins, my aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of my family. In theory, you could say I was a member by proxy. But I am not a member. Who was I to grieve and celebrate memories of the place?
The other night I had scoured the Tree of Life building in search of any sign of my relatives. A photo, a name, a golden plaque. The only thing I found was one of the few remaining items hanging on the wall. A framed piece of paper explaining a quilt displayed nearby. Diamond. Spodek. Both sides of my family contributed fabric to the one hanging, on one hanging is the epitome of my family’s relationship to Pittsburgh.
Sitting in services, I thought about that wall hanging. Belonging is complicated. Sometimes it takes the right people to make you feel like you belong somewhere, sometimes it takes no people at all. Sometimes a place that is so familiar can suddenly feel foreign, and a place that is foreign can feel like home. There is no one right way to feel like you belong in Judaism. It’s easy to run away from Judaism when it makes you uncomfortable. But I’m working on staying put and figuring out how to fit the uncomfortable into my Jewish practices.
Slowly, people I knew began showing up to services. My aunt came and sat next to me, my uncle, and their friend sat in the row behind. The small room with a stage upfront, and a beautifully covered ark, began to open, it began to feel a little bit bigger. After services, at the luncheon, congregants kept coming up to me.
“First, Yasher Koach,” they said. “We were so impressed by your reading.” “Second, who are you?” they asked, partially teasing.
“My name is Madi,” I replied, explaining my connection to Tree of Life. Silently, I added, “And this is just another step in my Jewish journey.”
Madison Jackson lives in Pittsburgh, PA and is the Director of Jewish Student Life at Carnegie Mellon University Hillel. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Chatham University, and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Judaic Studies and English from Binghamton University.