Monday, May 09, 2016

Bitter Herbs

I haven't written a blog post in over six months for a very good reason: I couldn't. I couldn't find the right words and when I thought I might have a few of them, I couldn't stop grieving. Yet somehow, once again Pesach (Passover) has given me tools with which to describe my leaving the most recent narrow place.

It's interesting to note that when I write books, they're always in response to some Big Question. Destined to Choose was an answer I could live with to the question "Why is there evil in the world?" Strength to Stand was an answer to "How much intolerance must we tolerate? And if the answer is 'none,' aren't we also being intolerant?" But I've never been able to write my way through traumatic experiences. My third novel, No One to Fear, due out in 2017, is the first post-9/11 book in the Rabbi David Cohen series. It's the first time I've been able to write about 9/11. I haven't yet been able to write about my parents' deaths, and it's been twelve years and seven years, respectively. Last December brought another kind of trauma and I'm only now able to write about it without bursting into tears.

September 2015 was filled with joy and book events. To my utter amazement, I found myself on TV, radio, in several newspapers, and around the Internet. For an introverted author, this was both exciting and terrifying. I flew to North Carolina (back when anyone could still use the bathroom most appropriate for them) for Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery/suspense/thriller convention for authors and fans. I met wonderful booksellers and readers and fellow authors through November.

In early December I had another book event, one that I'd dreamed about for years: being the December spotlight author for the local JCC's Jewish Book Series. It was, in many ways, a dream come true. And it was sponsored by my home synagogue. The rabbi seemed excited, and at one point said, "We have an opportunity to celebrate one of our own." Except it didn't turn out that way. At all.

I'm not going to go into details, because that isn't the point of this post. I'm also not going to name names, because that also isn't the point. (I ask that any commenters please not name names in the comments either. If you know me in person and want more details than this post gives, please contact me by email or through Facebook.)

What that event did do, however, was open my eyes to a problem that I'd been avoiding and choosing not to see for years: the shul had let members of my family (and me) down repeatedly over 20+ years. I'm not talking about the occasional human oversight. I'm talking about an ongoing failure of communication, of actions not matching words. Of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

My kids (now both teens) had no ties to the shul. No friends, no future there. My husband, save for a couple of individual friends, felt no sense of community. I was convinced that the problem was with me: if I just tried harder, I would be valued.

But December's event made me realize that all this time that I thought I was eating a savory, substantial brisket, I was really eating bitter herbs, washed down with the salt water of my own tears.

In an email I sent to the rabbi the day after that December event, I wrote, "The fastest way to drive someone away from Judaism is to make them feel like they have no value." I stand by that comment. We as human beings are hard-wired to belong. We need community (even us introverts).

Since joining that congregation some 20+ years ago, I had often wondered—and worried—what if I really, really needed my Jewish community, and they weren't there for me? While they sometimes were there for me, there were far more times when they weren't, including (but not limited to) my father's unexpected death, an extremely difficult pregnancy, and a life-threatening crisis involving my youngest son. During all of these times, I reached out for support. I didn't hide or expect anyone to read my mind. I heard the words I needed to hear ("We care very much") but no action followed. No minyan after my father's death. No support while I was under doctor's orders to remain in bed during pregnancy. No support or even resources during my son's crisis. I couldn't rely on their support. I couldn't trust that I actually had a community.

Thank G-d I didn't feel the need to leave Judaism as a result of this. I can't even imagine doing that. But with my family's input, I did come to the conclusion that this was not a healthy environment for me or my family. We had to leave our spiritual home and find a new one.

Psychology teaches about behavior change through rewards. Nearly everyone has heard about Pavlov's dog. That's an example of classical conditioning. Anyone who uses clicker training with a dog or cat is also using classical conditioning. But another type of behavior modification is called variable ratio. Slot machines work on a variable ratio reward system. You keep inserting a nickel or quarter or dollar into the machine and while you lose most of the time, you win just often enough to keep inserting those coins, ever hopeful that the big win is just around the corner.

Synagogues (and churches and mosques and other faith communities) should not work on a variable ratio reward system. For many people, these communities are their primary support network. It is true that no single group can meet all the needs of their members, or even all the needs of one member. But if it's actually practicing what it preaches, so to speak, it can do much better than 50%.

Since January, I've been going through a grieving process. While my kids and husband have been able to move on to the new synagogue without regrets, I feel like I've been through a divorce — or what I imagine a divorce would feel like. Thoughts like "I thought you cared," and "I thought we had something" and "Was it all a lie?" continually flit through my mind.

I emailed a handful of people from the congregation with whom I felt close, to let them know we were leaving, but outside of a few of those people, no one — including clergy — has reached out to us. There was no contact when we ended our membership. No contact when I gave an exit interview to a committee chair a few weeks later — and the committee chair only knew because she was one of the recipients of my email. It feels like the 20+ years we put into that community meant nothing, has no value. It's as if our family never mattered.

But I refuse to be defined by others' indifference. I've learned and grown enough to know that what we experienced in this congregation is not a reflection of us but rather a reflection of them. I didn't see the signs before December but I do now. I recognize now that leaving was an act of health, of taking care of myself and my family.

I'm still navigating the grief. It's too soon for me to go back to visit. Aside from a simcha next fall, I'm not sure it's appropriate to go back at all. My family sees no need to visit. In fact, my youngest, who was about to call it quits on Judaism all together, based on his experiences with our old congregation and the local Jewish school, has blossomed and begun to thrive at the new synagogue.

It is hard to let go. It's hard to give up on a relationship of more than 20 years, even when that relationship caused pain. It's hard to give up on what could have been, and that's what I'm really grieving. But it's also what I have to look forward to with the new synagogue: what can be.

Here's to life, and second chances, and the journey toward a new and fulfilling relationship.
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