Growing up, being Jewish meant simply saying I was Jewish. But somewhere along the line, I started feeling Jewish. And that somewhere was in the historic Plum Street Temple, one of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s dreams come true.
As an interfaith couple, when my husband and I decided to raise our children Jewish, we had no idea where it would lead. Perhaps not surprising for a Lutheran guy from a small Ohio town. But even as a Jewish girl from New Jersey, the word “Shabbat” was not part of my vocabulary, never mind my life. Fridays came and went. There were no candles, no challah, no prayers.
If we were going to be a Jewish family, we needed help. Through the grace of a colleague, we found ourselves welcomed into Isaac M. Wise Temple. We signed up for adult learning, family projects and religious school. Soon I was honored to join the Temple Board, where I served as a Trustee and Officer for 16 years.
We started with baby steps. A CD player became a guest at our Friday dinner table. We sang along with Debbie Friedman until we had the courage to say the Shabbat blessings ourselves. We created miniature braided breads from Pillsbury dough until we dared to make challah from scratch. We moved from reading about Jewish values to incorporating them into our days, and even into the name of our dog. Then one night, I walked into Plum Street Temple. It was Simchat Torah and the sanctuary was filled with excited parents awaiting their children’s consecration into religious school. Five-year-olds held miniature Torahs and sang enough off-key to bring a smile to even the most stoic pew sitter. By chance, I was the Board member standing closest to our rabbi. He handed me a Torah. It was the first time I had held one and I was surprised by its weight. I knew the facts. This was the night we were to begin reading the Torah anew. These were the same words read by prior generations at the same time each year. But on that night, I felt it. Later, my rabbi suggested I study for my adult bat mitzvah. I was invited to take a leap of faith into my faith, right there where Isaac Mayer Wise once expressed his then-revolutionary dream of women being equals in temple life.
When the historic Plum Street Temple first opened its doors in 1866, there were fewer than 200 members in Rabbi Wise’s congregation. Yet the temple was built to seat over 1000 people. I think those extra pews were his way of welcoming future generations. I wonder, what do you think?
Geri Kolesar is the author of Dream By Dream: The Story of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.