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Synagogue Membership: Reflections of an Empty-Nester

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By Sarah Szanton

The author in Vrksasana (Tree Pose): Persisting through the wobble.

The author in Vrksasana (Tree Pose): Persisting through the wobble.

When our kids both left home, life suddenly opened up. I bought less food, I did less laundry, I got more closet space. I stopped buying beef jerky and trying to understand football. We looked forward to date nights, travel and spontaneity. Of course we missed our kids, but we were also excited about the freedom that awaited us in this new chapter of our lives.

We pondered what this new stage of life meant for our Jewish involvement. What would we do on Shabbat? How would we observe holidays? Now that it was no longer a set of values that we tried to pass on to our children, what did it mean for us? Now that we no longer had to be role models, now that our kids were no longer looking, what would we do?

We might have chosen to reduce our involvement. I had already stopped teaching Religious School. My husband, who hadn’t grown up Jewish, had plenty to keep him busy. Professional goals and community causes of all kinds beckoned us, not to mention taking care of the house, and possibly even relaxing a bit.

Somehow, though, we chose to stay engaged. We kept our tradition of Shabbat dinners, we became more-or-less regular Shabbat morning worshippers, and we pursued Jewish learning: he had an adult Bar Mitzvah and I returned to B’nai Mitzvah tutoring. We kept our membership in Congregation Bet Ha’am, the synagogue we had belonged to since before our children were born. Without explicitly discussing why, we both felt the need to maintain and even strengthen our roots in this community. Maybe we felt obligated because we knew the community needed us. Maybe we knew our kids were still watching us. Maybe it was a sense of responsibility combined with a desire to build and nourish an institution that we both loved.

A few weeks ago, my husband became the President of the Board of Directors of our synagogue. At the congregational meeting and at the worship service afterwards, I looked around the room and reflected on how we had gotten to this point. When we moved to Maine 30 years ago, we didn’t know anyone and my husband was not Jewish. Now we have two children who have grown up and moved far away. We have deep bonds with many people in our synagogue community. I’m glad we’re here. And I’m glad that, somehow, we persisted in our commitment, despite the bumps along the way.

If college is the number one place to make lifelong friends, a synagogue community is probably a second best. Here is where we have marked the milestones of our life and the lives of our friends: baby-namings, Consecrations, B’nai Mitzvah, Confirmations, Mi Sheberachs, Kadishes. Here is where people knew me as a young mother. Here is where people recognize my parents as familiar visitors. Here is where people know and appreciate my cooking. Here is where I can always count on exchanging hugs and kisses with friends as we catch up on each other’s news, the happy and the sad.

Here is where I will seek solace some day when I encounter loss. Here is where sometimes I feel like I give more than I receive, but here also is a where, more often, I know I receive more than I give. Here is where sometimes I am frustrated or confused, but, more often, I am inspired. Here is where I sometimes struggle with Big Questions. Here is where I know it’s OK to keep struggling.

Here, in fact, is a community of like-minded strugglers and seekers. Amidst the secular society around us, we are all Jews by Choice. We impose the religion and the education upon our children and then, at some point, have to make rules for ourselves rather than for others. Why is Judaism important to us? Why is it worth all the inconvenience and the sacrifice? What do we really believe God requires of us?

Through the years, many friends have left the congregation: Religious School teacher colleagues, an Education Director, parents of many of my kids’ friends, and others. They left for various reasons and I miss them. New people join, though, and there are always new friends to make. One new friend and I spoke recently about the questioning and the doubts that often accompany Jewish identity in a world where we cherish our multiple identities. Yes, we are Jews, but being Jewish is just part of the complex identities that we cultivate and cherish. How does Judaism rate on that list? To be honest, sometimes it rises and sometimes it falls. Keeping it near the top, we both agreed, means giving it new meaning by finding new ways to express it. Re-engagement, then, seems to be key, for both our own authenticity and for our community’s health.

We re-engage when we return to the table. For years, I worked with children with autism who occasionally chose to hide under the table or flop on the floor beside the table rather than work on the activity. As a therapist, I knew it was important to gently lure them back rather than force their cooperation. Once we were sharing space again, and jointly engaged in an activity, we had a working relationship and progress was possible.

We re-engage when we acknowledge the difficulties and decide to persevere. One of my favorite yoga teachers tells us during challenging balance poses to “embrace the wobble.” If you see a photo of someone holding a yoga pose perfectly, she says, don’t be fooled. Chances are that one nanosecond after that photo was snapped, the person fell over. Inner peace comes from the ease that we find when we try, wobble, try again, wobble some more, and finally at some point wobble a little bit less.

Staying engaged in congregational life has not always been easy for me. Having my husband take on the role of president won’t be easy either. I am grateful, though, for the challenge to deepen connections, to ask more questions, to explore new ways to express my Jewish identity, to persevere through the wobble, to stay at the table, and to know I belong.

-Sarah Szanton

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