Sandra Armstrong is a special education preschool teacher and author who lives in Kailua, Hawaii. She recently published an autobiography, “A Jewish Girl & a Not-So-Jewish Boy,” about Judaism and her interfaith marriage.
With Christmas and Hanukkah around the corner, it made me think back 35 years to when my husband Don and I were newly married.
I called the local synagogue and spoke directly to the secretary. Since my married name was Armstrong, she did not mince words with me. She stated clearly that because my husband was not Jewish, we could not be members of the synagogue. Ouch! Obviously, it was not a pleasant phone conversation. She preempted the Rabbi, to whom I should have spoken to directly. I was young and hurt, but I didn’t let it stop us from attending High Holidays services or participating in the Young Couples Club. Long-standing members were gracious and welcoming to us. We fondly remember the warm glow of acceptance that was cast upon us by them. There is something very unique about Judaism. It seeps deep into your soul, and even if you were raised without a Jewish education, you maintain an ethnic identity. This is how it was for me.
We began our married lives celebrating Jewish holidays like Hanukkah and Passover. I always observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because I didn’t know how to celebrate any others yet. We also celebrated Christmas and Easter for Don. We attended synagogue on the High Holidays and a church service once while visiting with Don’s Grandmother Armstrong in North Carolina. We did just fine with this arrangement. Don was raised with Christmas and Easter, and my family celebrated Hanukkah and Passover. I have to admit that I was not thrilled the first time we brought a Christmas tree home. I grew up believing that Jews were not allowed to celebrate Christmas. It was the big no-no.
Although never being one hundred percent comfortable with it, I did my best and we had wonderful Christmas celebrations with Don’s family. I liked the idea of giving to someone you love to please them. I enjoyed seeing the look of surprise when they opened their gifts. This gift giving was a way to demonstrate how much you thought of the person all year round. It was in the spirit of giving, the element of surprise that I celebrated this holiday. By making it pleasurable, I was doing something for Don because he was terrific about accepting Judaism in our lives. We went on this way for nine years, until something happened. We had two young children, moved from an apartment to a house, and discovered a Jewish Community.
We met with an energetic twenty-six year old rabbi at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Would this rabbi kick us out because we had fallen in love? Would he lecture us about what was already a done deal? How would he react to us? Would he let us join his synagogue? Rabbi Noam Marans welcomed us, encouraged us, and calmly spoke to us about our future at Temple Israel. From that moment on, our lives changed forever.
Since we were both considered members, we joined as a complete family unit. It wasn’t me coming in as a member, and Don as my guest. This made an enormous difference to us. I did not want my husband to be in a separate membership category. For the first time since we were married, I felt (religiously) like a million bucks. I was with a man I loved and on top of it all, after nine years of marriage, the rabbi didn’t yell at us. I am making a joke, but in all seriousness, he could have turned us away and our lives would not be as wonderful as they are today. The only parting comment he had for Don was, “I will encourage your conversion, but I will never think less of you if you don’t convert.” This is when we entered the tent of Judaism. We were strangers to synagogue life, and we were afraid of rejection, but instead of being turned away we were wholeheartedly accepted. It was in this acceptance, at that particular time and place in our lives, that we made a commitment to explore Judaism as a couple. As this young rabbi welcomed us, we knew that our needs would be met. Now anything could be possible on our road to Jewish discovery.
Temple Israel became our home away from home. We immersed ourselves in the community where we raised our children in a loving Jewish environment. On a weekly basis, people of all ages mixed and mingled. This meant our children would see the best in people, both young and old. As we became part of this dynamic community, we were continually encouraged to actively participate. Don and I were tremendously grateful to be accepted as an interfaith couple.
After 25 years of marriage and being actively involved in synagogue life, as a family, Don converted to Judaism. In fact, today as I write this blog, we now live in Hawaii and Don is President of Congregation Sof Ma’arav, the conservative synagogue in Honolulu. We study together, and both of us teach Beginning and Intermediate Hebrew classes. We make it a point of welcoming others into the tent of Judaism because we are grateful to all the wonderful people from New Jersey to Hawaii who opened the tent of Judaism for us.