Rabbi Heidi Hoover is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn, NY, but unlike most rabbis, Hoover grew up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. We sat down with Rabbi Hoover to talk about her conversion, swapping clergy stories with her father, and why her Jewish kids believe in Santa Clause.
Do you and your dad ever bond about both being in the clergy, albeit different religions?
Yes! The day-to-day work of a member of the clergy has a lot of similarities across religions. When I was in rabbinical school he once called me to say, “I want to tell you about this committee meeting I just had, because you’re going to have to deal with stuff like this.” Another time he told me I’d inspired him to brush up on his Hebrew, and he called me once to say, “What do you think about [the word] chesed?” A couple of times I’ve called him for advice, in particular one time when I had to lead services in a very challenging situation.
(BTW, I love this question, and it’s not one I’ve been often asked.)
When did you know you wanted to be Jewish?
There came a point when I realized I had already become Jewish, and decided I had to convert since I was Jewish. I had begun going to synagogue with my boyfriend as part of a social group. Over the course of about four years, I got more and more involved at the synagogue and learned a great deal. I agreed that if my boyfriend and I ever got married and had children, they would be raised Jewish (from the time I met him, it was clear that his children would have to be Jewish, and if I wanted to be their mother, I would have to somehow become okay with that, which I did–we got married in 1999, and our daughters are now 11 and 7). I didn’t think I would ever convert, though.
Then, in 1997, my mother was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. This was horrible, horrible news. My first impulse was, “I have to go to synagogue and say mishabeirach (the prayer for healing) for her.” It occurred to me that if I was turning to Judaism for comfort at one of the worst moments of my life, that must mean that I had become Jewish, so it was time to make it official. (My mom died August 25, 2006, which was the worst day of my life so far, hands down.)
What do you think you learned from your father about how to be a member of the clergy?
Show everyone respect. Be diplomatic, but have conviction and firmness. Have a sense of humor. You will never get everyone to like you, and it can’t be too important to you that they do. It’s important to be a good public speaker.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask the rabbi something about the High Holidays. With the coming season of atonement, do you ever feel like you have to apologize to your family for changing religions?
No. That actually never occurred to me. I am sorry for any pain or confusion my conversion might have brought them, but I don’t feel the need to apologize for where my spiritual journey has taken me. As I understand it, they did not experience my choice as something I did to them, or something that it would be appropriate to apologize for. I believe that I was respectful of them and their beliefs even as I departed from them, and they have always been respectful of my choice.
Have you talked to your kids about your conversion? What did you tell them?
I’ve talked to them a little about it. They know I chose to be Jewish and that they were born Jewish, and that their grandparents on my side have a different religion, and believe some different things about God. They have accepted that easily so far. I have also told them that because I had a Reform conversion (a halakhic conversion with mikvah), and I am their mother, there may come a time in their lives when someone tells them I’m not Jewish, and therefore they aren’t. I’ve told them that anyone who says that to them is wrong, but that that person might have power over them in some way, and then they’ll have to decide how to deal with it.
This has happened in bits and pieces in different conversations, in age-appropriate ways, and will continue, because I want them to feel very strong in their Jewishness, which they do, and I never want them to be surprised and feel like a rug is being pulled out from under them if they’re ever in a situation (like wanting to get married in Israel) when someone with power tries to take away their Jewish identity.
What’s it like to visit your family with your kids?
It’s great. My parents have always been very respectful. When we’ve visited during Hanukkah, they made sure to have a menorah and candles. When my mom was alive, my older daughter would sometimes go and stay with them during spring break, which coincides with Passover. My mom would email me and ask for lists of what she could and couldn’t eat during Passover.
We spend Christmas with them every year, and my kids understand that this is not their holiday, but that it’s a holiday celebrated by people we love, and we go and share their celebration. (There are no trappings of Christmas in our home.) It’s like when you go to someone’s birthday party, and it’s not your birthday, but you can be happy for them and share their day. Of course my kids get presents, and we’ve kind of given up on calling them Hanukkah presents. We don’t give them presents on Christmas, only on Hanukkah.
Interestingly, my kids believe in Santa Claus (or did, when they were younger). If asked what Santa does, they say with a shrug, “Santa brings presents to the Christian kids.” They don’t care that Santa doesn’t bring them presents, because they know they get presents from their parents.
It’s often said that women apologize too much. Do you have any good ways of teaching your daughters how to apologize but not over-apologize?
This question brings up an issue I think about a lot. Judaism is in many ways a religion created by men for men. We have made it much more egalitarian, of course, but I think many of our rituals are designed to do what men need to do. So at the High Holidays, I wonder if the strong emphasis on “we are not so stiff-necked as to say we have not sinned. We have sinned, we have transgressed,” etc. might be aimed at people who are generally not humble, not willing to admit they have done wrong, and not willing to apologize. While there are certainly women like this, I think it tends to be more a characteristic of men.
So what does this mean for women? I actually think it means the same thing for both men and women. The idea of the High Holidays is to see yourself clearly. Seek out the parts of yourself that are uncomfortable, the wrong things you’ve done, and think about how to make them right. But also see where you have wronged yourself by not taking the credit you are due, or by apologizing when there was no reason to do so.
This brings me more specifically to your question about my daughters. When my older daughter was about 4, she had a friend the same age who spent a lot of time at our house. One day the little friend started to cry, and I caught myself saying to my daughter, “You made her cry.” As soon as it came out, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to teach her. As she’s grown older, I’ve tried to teach her and her sister that sometimes people get upset, and sometimes it’s because you’ve done something wrong that you should apologize for, and sometimes it’s because they’ve gotten upset themselves about something that isn’t something you’ve done wrong. For example, it’s okay if you don’t want to play with friend A today, even if friend A gets angry with you. You don’t always have to try to make people feel better; you don’t always have to subordinate what you want to what someone else wants; it’s not always your responsibility if someone else feels sad or angry.
It’s a challenging topic. Sometimes we might choose to do something we don’t particularly want to do in order to make someone we care about happy, or we might choose to apologize to make someone feel better and mend a relationship, even if we think it shouldn’t be necessary. I hope I’m helping my daughters grow up with positive self-images and a clear-eyed sense of their responsibilities in relationships, and what other people’s responsibilities toward them in relationships should be.
I had a mentor in college, Barbara Lazarus (of blessed memory). She had a son and a daughter, and she told me once that in raising them she’d learned that she had to teach her son how to treat other people, but she had to teach her daughter how to expect others to treat her. Our society does a pretty good job of teaching boys how they should expect to be treated, and teaching girls how to treat others, but not so much vice versa. I’m trying to teach my daughters that they should expect others to treat them with respect, both by modeling that in my own life and in conversations about their friendships. I also have never made them hug people if they didn’t want to. I can handle awkward moments with relatives and friends if it means my girls have a sense of their bodily integrity and know that they don’t have to have people touch them if they don’t want it. This may seem a little far afield from apologizing too much, but I think it all goes together.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn, NY. She feels honored to be leading a Jewish community that is warm, loving, supportive and open. She and her husband live in Brooklyn with their wonderful daughters, ages 11 and 7, and she cannot believe that she is now the mom of a middle-schooler!