From church choir to Jerusalem

Harold Berman
Harold Berman

One Christmas eve, as Jews across the country headed for Chinese restaurants, I found myself in a church choir.

The church, on the outskirts of Boston and straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, had hired me to sing for their service. As the clock struck 11, I entered the sanctuary with the choir, our robes and music illuminated only by the candles each of us held.

“Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,” we intoned in a near-whisper as the organ weaved its way under our voices. “Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed.” The congregation gradually joined in as we made our way to the choir loft. “Mary, loving mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.”

The hymn concluded, and in a moment never to be replicated in any synagogue, the entire congregation sat down in unison, uttering not a word.

And so began my search to live a deeply meaningful Jewish life.

I was born and raised as a Jew. I had my Bar Mitzvah at the local Reform temple. After college, I fell in love with the woman who was to become my wife. She wasn’t Jewish; she was the minister of music in a Texas megachurch. But at the time, I couldn’t imagine why that should be an issue, and I was upset when the local rabbi wouldn’t marry us alongside her minister.

That Christmas Eve was hardly the first time I had sung in a church. But this time was different.

We had recently decided to adopt a child. My Christian wife, who was busy directing the choir for a church service across town, had concluded that, given our circumstances, it would be easiest to raise him as a Jew. We had even joined a temple that was very welcoming to interfaith families.

As I stood in that church choir loft, with talk of mangers and virgin births swirling around me, a little voice in my head began to protest. The voice reminded me that, in addition to Christmas Eve, it was Friday night. The voice asked what I was doing there. I didn’t have a good answer.

The voice asked me why Shabbat wasn’t as important to me as Christmas Eve was to them. I struggled for a response.

By the end of the service, the voice had thoroughly interrogated me. “OK, OK,” I thought. “You’re right. I need to get serious about Judaism.”

Ironically, that church service gave me the push I needed to start making Judaism central to my life. Push, yes. But where was the pull? Where was the compelling Jewish community that would draw me in?

My wife and I started going to classes at the temple we had joined, but the classes weren’t so exciting. And when hardly anyone else showed up, we began to lose interest.

I started going to services, but that wasn’t so exciting either. There was lots of talk about making the service shorter and more entertaining, but hardly a word about making prayer more meaningful.

So I started to read about Judaism, books like “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel and piles of commentaries on the Torah. It was all so compelling, so rich, so deep. But every time I lifted my gaze from those books, the Jewish reality around me wasn’t nearly as exciting — neither in the temple we had joined nor the many others we visited.

My wife wanted to learn more about Judaism too, if for no other reason than to help raise our son. But the enthusiasm she encountered at church wasn’t matched in many parts of the Jewish community. Temple members had welcomed us with open arms. Everyone was friendly. But beyond the smiles, there wasn’t much more to keep us coming back.

Being warm and welcoming and inclusive is nice. In fact, it’s essential. But it’s not enough.

When it comes to the intermarried, our Jewish world has made a mantra of the “open tent.”

We’ve forgotten that the tent’s door is merely a point of entry. What’s inside is what ultimately matters.

The intermarried can get smiles in many other places. But if we are not providing them with all the depth and meaning that our 3,500-year-old tradition has to offer, we are not only selling Judaism short, but we are failing them.

So from the church choir loft to Jewish experiences that left me asking “Where’s the beef?” to a pile of Jewish books — just where did I end up?

Today, we are an observant Jewish family living near Jerusalem. My wife at a certain point felt compelled to convert and become part of the Jewish people. Our children are conversant with Jewish texts. We live in a community that is fully immersed in Jewish life.

How we got here is a rather involved story, which my wife and I have set forth in our recently released book, “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope.” The very short version is that we ultimately found more traditional parts of the Jewish world, where Judaism was a 24/7 activity that was about nothing less than transforming ourselves and our world; where we were inspired to learn and grow and ultimately become a Jewish family because we were given substance we couldn’t find anywhere else.

But when we started out, we would have been any Jewish outreach worker’s nightmare. Had we only experienced the “warm and welcoming” track that much of the Jewish community is offering to the intermarried, I wouldn’t be writing this. I would have been lost to the Jewish community.

With approximately 600,000 intermarried families in the United States, I wonder who else we’re overlooking.

Harold Berman, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” is the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife, Gayle, are the founders of J-Journey.org, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews.