September 2020

Elizabeth Smith’s Story: “What kind of Jew?”

My story, although of course uniquely mine, may not be that far removed from your own experience, even given the miles of geography and span of years that may separate us.


I was born in a tiny town that most people have never heard of, near Easton, Maryland. You may have passed it on your way to Ocean City, that is, if your family went to Ocean City for summer weekends and vacations. If you did, you may remember the road signs pointing you toward Oxford, a town so small that even by 1983 (the year I moved away) the population was only 650 people – truly a place where everyone knew everyone else’s business. OK, maybe there were some "summer folk" that were Jewish, but as far as I know my family was the only Jewish family.

Any guesses why I moved away?

Growing up, my family attended Temple B'nai Israel in Easton, when we went. We didn’t have our own rabbi. For High Holidays B’nai Israel would "rent a rabbi,” really a rabbinical student, to lead the services. 

I have a clear memory, though, of some of the times we did attend. How about you? You might not have gone to synagogue every week either. And if you did, what do you remember most? I remember one room had a bimah. When we had services I was so stressed that my mom and I were on one side and my father and brother on the other! I was so young. So, my father, to make me feel better, made sure he sat on the far end of the men’s bench and I on the far end of the women’s bench. That way, he could reach over and hold my hand when I wanted him to. Wow. How about that?

And my mother? She had converted to Judaism (Rabbi Kushi got the details), which unfortunately meant that we were ostracized to a great degree from her parents and family. Such a shame, a loss, really, when a family is estranged like that.

Weirdly, even though I wouldn’t have considered myself a “very good Jew” growing up, I remember as a child being physically assaulted just for being Jewish.

When my brother was of bar mitzvah age, my parents were already divorced. The Temple hired a rabbinical student to prepare several boys, and the rest of us got a little bit of Sunday Shul time. But when it was my turn to become a bat mitzvah, I was told that there was no money and that my father would not participate. And I believe neither would the temple. Although I do remember going with my mother to two other temples—before she said I would not have a bat mitzvah. Another loss. Another way I was distanced from my Judaism.

By my senior year in high school, I was the only Jew in my entire school (not just my class), including the staff.

Growing up, did you celebrate Chanukah, but also hang up stockings and put out cookies and milk? So did we, although we never had a tree. And I don't have any memories of my mother making Passover dinner, but I do remember going to some.

When I was in college I dated a Jewish boy (the only one) and when I couldn’t afford to go to High Holiday services, he invited me to his and to his home to break fast. I didn’t know or care what type of temple it was. I was just happy to go! Yes, me, a “not very good Jew, missed the tradition. I can't read Hebrew, but I was able to follow it a little, you know what I mean? If the service didn’t go too quickly.

When we got to his synagogue I had to go upstairs, behind a lattice work, to sit with the women. And, to top it off, there was no transliteration for me to follow.

I remembered what my grandmother would say to me when I was growing up, "You look like your mother's side of the family, but we know you are ours because you have the Kline hips." In other words, I looked out of place. Like I didn’t belong. Have you ever felt that way? Jewish, in a synagogue, and out of place? Strange, huh?

Well, on that particular High Holy Day, I was seated between two bubbes. As I tried to follow along with the service, I kept losing my place, and one or the other of the bubbes would reach over, point me to the right place and get me started again. What I love most about temple is singing the prayers, and while I sort of recognized many of them, they were not using tunes that I knew, so I mostly sat silent. Which was frustrating, but I hung in there.

At the very end of the service the congregation sang a prayer with a familiar tune. Relieved, I closed the book, closed my eyes, and sang it with all my heart. I was so happy! When we were finished, both of the bubbes had big smiles on their faces and patted my arm.

In that moment they realized that I actually did belong there!

When my husband and I decided to have children, we agreed to raise them with Judaism, but like my family his observed some Christian traditions, but seemed more connected to Judaism. 

After moving to Harford County, we found Temple B'nai Torah. I learned a lot more about Judaism there. At the time it was a chavurah, defined, I was told, as a gathering of friends. It truly was a great group of friends/families/people.

Then, Rabbi Kushi appeared. He had tracked me down on Facebook, one of the many Jews in Belair he was trying to get to know. We met, of course, at a Starbucks to talk. That’s like his unofficial office, right? I liked him instantly. Who doesn't?

We have since gotten to know him, his wife Fraida and their lovely children. Occasionally, my husband and I accept an invitation from Kushi and/or his wife Fraida for a dinner or event, where I often tease him that "I am just not that kind of Jew."

"What kind of Jew?" Fraida once asked.

"The kind that actually does Jew things," I replied.

But now that I am involved with Harford Chabad, Fraida likes to tease me back when she catches me lighting candles or observing another Jewish tradition.

"Look at you! Doing that Jew stuff!" she laughs.

For the record, I ADORE Fraida and Kushi and the kids. They are an awesome family and just really good people—religion aside. My husband and I always feel welcome at Harford Chabad in whatever we join, or however we participate. My husband is not Jewish, but we never feel unwelcome, or like outsiders. That is because of the warm, welcoming environment that the Schustermans have created for everyone who steps foot in Harford Chabad (or Starbucks, for that matter). And with your support, even more Jews can find their way home to Harford Chabad—whatever kind of Jew they are.

For me, while my observance hasn’t changed drastically, my connection to my Judaism has. Including Fraida teaching me how to make her AMAZING gefilte fish! Next up? Blintzes!