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Why I'm Going Back to My Synagogue After 25 Years Away

Posted: 11/15/11 12:13 PM ET

I'm going back to my synagogue this month, nearly 25 years after I thought I'd left for good.

I grew up in Silver Spring, Md., the youngest of three children. We kept a kosher home and observed the Jewish holidays, but synagogue remained the focus of our religious upbringing. Like my brother and sister, I attended Hebrew school three times a week, went to services every Saturday, and celebrated my bar mitzvah at Shaare Tefila, the Conservative congregation where my parents had been members since they'd moved to suburban Maryland in the early 1960s.

Despite the similarities in our experiences as kids, my siblings and I had dramatically different reactions to synagogue. My brother, for instance, went on to become a rabbi, overseeing his own Conservative congregation on Long Island. Around the same time he started rabbinical school, however, I decided in my teens that I was done with synagogue -- largely because as I came to terms with being a young gay man, I realized that the Conservative movement didn't have room for me.

This wasn't idle speculation on my part. The Conservative movement in the 1980s was explicit in its stances: condemnation of homosexual behavior, no recognition of same-sex couples, a ban on ordination of gay rabbis. In case the message wasn't clear enough, my rabbi -- ironically, a tireless champion for civil rights in the 1960s -- periodically gave sermons on the subject that left no room for doubt.

I left the synagogue, and the movement, when I finished high school, and never returned. Once I got to college, I stopped observing holidays and abandoned the rituals I'd grown up practicing. Rejection is a two-way street.

Over the next decade, though, I found that I missed some of the things I'd left behind. I struggled to find a way to reconnect to my Jewish heritage -- without going back to services. I found many ways to feel Jewish again: through food, music, politics. I even started observing a few holidays again, ones like Passover and Hanukkah that focus on home rather than synagogue.

As a writer, I found my strongest connection came through words. I devoured books by Jewish authors, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Philip Roth, Amos Oz to Cynthia Ozick. A few -- Lev Raphael, Michael Lowenthal, Aaron Hamburger -- managed to weave their own gay identities into their Jewish experiences, which drew me in deeper. Eventually, I began to incorporate Jewish themes into my own work, as a journalist and later as a fiction writer.

Writing my new novel, "Sweet Like Sugar" -- about a young gay man's alienation from his Conservative Jewish roots in suburban Maryland, and his unlikely friendship with an Orthodox rabbi -- finally allowed me the chance to put my thoughts on paper in a coherent, comprehensive way. And because it's fiction, despite the cosmetic similarities between me and my protagonist, I could even give the story a happy ending: understanding, acceptance, open minds, open arms.

Then something unexpected happened. Shaare Tefila invited me to speak.

My childhood rabbi passed away years ago; I have heard wonderful things about the current rabbi from my parents and my brother, but he was never my rabbi. The congregation recently moved from Silver Spring to Olney, so even the building itself is unfamiliar. And the Conservative movement has traveled a great distance since the 1980s on gay issues -- ordaining its first openly gay rabbi a few months ago. So this is not exactly the same synagogue I left behind.

Then again, I'm not the same man I used to be. I found my place in the Jewish community a long time ago: I served as editor of the Forward, the legendary Jewish newspaper, and am now deputy editor of Nextbook Press, a Jewish publisher. I may not be "a synagogue person," but through words and ideas, I have reconnected to the community that once rejected me. No longer a strident teenager, I'm more willing to engage instead of walking away, searching for personal connections that might overcome political differences. And most of all, I've been out for decades now and have learned that I don't have to choose between being Jewish and being gay. I am always both, at the same time, in a way that feels authentic and comfortable to me.

When I wrote the novel, I had planned to visit bookstores around the country on a traditional author's tour. But when I accepted Shaare Tefila's invitation to speak on Nov. 18, I realized that this book could take me somewhere I'd never expected. It could take me home again. And that's the happiest ending of all.

 
 
 

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