jewish community

How I Finally Found a Jewish Community in Our Small Midwestern Town

kalamazoo

We were at the reception following my dear friend’s aufruf ceremony, a joyous and momentous pre-wedding ritual. We’d missed the service itself, but had made it in time for the luncheon. I’d been looking forward to it as our first event as congregants of our synagogue—but my kids clearly had other plans.

I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks as I swatted my 3-year-old son’s hand out of the giant, beautiful fruit display which served as the centerpiece of the synagogue’s luncheon for the second time in as many minutes.

“Benny!” I whispered through gritted teeth. “Mommy just said, we use a FORK to take our food. Please, let Mommy get that for you!”

He glanced at me, little mouth twisting into a wild grin that showed off his irresistible dimples, and then dug his free hand right back into the grapes—the closest fruit to his reach—popping one into his mouth and cracking his 3-year-old self up.

Mortified by his equally age-appropriate and obnoxious behavior, I scooped him up—legs thrashing—and plopped him down at the table where his big sister was seated nicely—for the moment—with my husband, enjoying her first blueberry blintz. A few congregants in the vicinity who’d witnessed the Fruit Thief in action cracked a knowing smile and tossed a nod of empathy my way.

I shared a bagel with my son (of which ¾ of the schmear ended up on his plaid button-down) and no more than two quiet minutes later, my 5-year-old daughter’s shoes were off and she was racing back into the sanctuary. Naturally, little brother followed suit.

Since my husband was deep in conversation with my best friend’s soon-to-be mother-in-law about the Hispanic Jews in Miami, I sprung to action, chasing them until I could corral my crazy kids.

Yep. You could say this was definitely not the way I wanted to introduce my kids to our new congregation.

“Oh dear, you have your hands full I see,” one of the elderly ladies said with a chuckle after I’d gotten them settled back at the table.

I nodded, face reddening. “I am SO sorry, ma’am, they’re not usually this badly-behaved…”

As if on cue, a piercing shriek came from the table. I hung my head in shame, mad at myself that I couldn’t control their behavior in that moment and wanting to crawl into a hole and disappear.

“Oh dear, don’t worry! We love to hear children’s squeals. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard that around here,” she said with a wistful smile. “Please know, they’re a joy.” The others at the table—probably grandparents and great-grandparents themselves—nodded in agreement and kindly introduced themselves to me.

And just like that, with my wild children in tow, we were welcomed with open arms to our new synagogue.

We’ve lived here in Kalamazoo for 10 years now, but to be honest, I didn’t feel the pull to bite the bullet and join a congregation until my daughter was ready to begin her formal Jewish education. And though a few months ago, I voiced concern about my kids being the only Jews in Kalamazoo, since joining, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how many of us live here, how friendly and kind this community is, and how many people I didn’t know were Jews!

Exhibit A: At religious school orientation, I ran into my optometrist and his family. While it might not be surprising that an optometrist would be Jewish, here in the Midwest, one can’t assume anything. I liked him before, but now knowing he’s a tribe member made me feel even more comfortable about his care—however silly that may sound.

Exhibit B: At our friends’ wedding in Ann Arbor this past weekend, I was tickled that I knew nearly all the congregation members who were in attendance. We were warmly welcomed and embraced, and enjoyed schmoozing with the other members. We each may have come from different places and ended up here in Kalamazoo for different reasons, but it’s our shared Jewish faith and bloodlines that bind us and connect each generation to the next.

Instead of feeling like an outsider, I now feel like I belong here in this community. All it took was making the leap to join the synagogue. I’m excited to volunteer for my daughter’s Hanukkah party and Purim carnival; to watch her class lead Friday night services in Decemberto see her light the Hanukkah candles this year with more meaning than ever before; to make new Jewish friends myself. Now I see familiar faces at Hebrew School every Sunday morning, and Maya is really enjoying it—she attends mini-services, has made new friends, has learned about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, and has been introduced to Hebrew words and songs. She’s actually teaching me colors in Hebrew nowwhich, in addition to being awesome, begs the question, why didn’t my Hebrew School teachers in New Jersey teach me that when I was little?!

It’s become abundantly clear to me that although we may not live in a big Jewish community here in Kalamazoo, this little community is pretty awesome. It may be small in size but it’s big in stature. It’s energetic, close-knit yet welcoming, and eager for young families—even interfaith families like ours, with wild and crazy little people—to get involved.

After all, in less than a decade, those wild and crazy little people will be 13: standing on the bimah, reading their Torah and Haftorah portions before our family and friends as they become a bar and bat mitzvah.

And the luncheon—our first official event as congregants—will feel a million years away.


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Melissa Henriquez

Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2).  By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa's writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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