Sometimes making a change in our normal routine seems almost impossible; so we make the decision to continue doing what we think feels right. Then one day, one of those big life changes happens, a marriage, a baby, a new job, divorce, a death, et cetera. In my case, it was the passing of one of my dear brothers.
I grew up attending Shabbat and holiday services at my father’s Beyt Knesset in South Jersey, the first Beyt Knesset in the United States, established by a man of color. As the youngest daughter of my father and mother, Abel and Viola Respes, z”l, not only did I have the opportunity to hear the melodic hymns during service, once I became of age, I joined the choir. At one point, our Beyt Knesset was fortunate to have a four part harmony and I, at certain points, accompanied the choir by playing the piano. While some of the strongest voices of my family’s choir have passed on, we are blessed to still have the talent of some of the older members. Additionally, there are rising singers in the next generation.
After the passing of my parents, I met and married my husband. When we moved to Maryland, I continued to attend services on holidays, and I participated in a few services annually at my father’s Beyt Knesset, for several years. A job would eventually take us even further south, to Florida. At this point, our family had grown, and now included our daughter. Initially, I could not bring myself to attend a service at another Beyt Knesset. I believe there was a part of me that felt like if I attended a different Beyt Knesset, I was somehow betraying my father and his Temple, one he worked so hard to establish and maintain. I was and am still dedicated to my roots. We did not live far from my husband’s stepmother and although it was nice spending time with her, and she was the only family we had who lived close to us, she was not Jewish. What would I do? I was missing my family and my Jewish connection. My dear husband, although not a Jew, knew how important my family’s congregation was to me, and community was important to him as well. He did some research and convinced me to step outside of my comfort zone to attend a Shacharit service at a Reform temple, not far from where we lived. I am not a fan of the categorizations of Jews — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, et cetera, but tried to leave my heart open for the experience, and we were pleasantly surprised and welcomed. That is not to say, I did not get the looks or the questions, “Are you Jewish? How did you become a Jew? Is your mother a Jew?”
I remember some of the congregants being amazed at how well behaved our 20-month-old daughter was and wanted to know our secret. I told them that my siblings and I were brought up to sit quietly and attentively during services, respecting one’s place of worship, and we were raising our daughter to do the same. I was complimented on how well I read Hebrew and was asked where I studied / who was my teacher? I told them my teacher was my father, who was the rabbi of a small congregation in New Jersey. If I had to guess, because I am a woman of color, when they heard how easily I was able to participate in the service, they were probably shocked. While I recognize Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies occur throughout the year, it seemed like Bar and Bat Mitzvah season as there were quite a few ceremonies held during the time that we attended services there. While the services were not the same as what I was familiar with in New Jersey, they brought a sense of contentment and spiritual connection.
We relocated to the greater DC area four years ago and my daughter and I were blessed to attend services again at my father’s Beyt Knesset. I felt it was important for our daughter to gain some sense of what I experienced as a child although it would not be quite the same. A couple of years ago, however, an event would occur personally that would prevent me from attending my family’s temple. So, the question arose again. What to do? Accept the fact that I would have to be satisfied with only praying at home or take a bold leap again to identify and participate in services outside of my father’s Beyt Knesset? I opted to do both. Some weeks, I stayed at home and prayed with my daughter, while other Shabbats, we worshiped at Beyt Knessets. Between my husband and me, we identified some Beyt Knessets that might work for us. I connected with a Jewish woman from the online community, and learned about a particular temple, which offers a musical service, once a month on Erev and Shacharit. Our family attended an Erev service and our encounter left me amazed. While the tunes were different from the ones I grew up singing, except for one, we departed feeling spiritually satisfied and looking forward to the next service. I enjoyed the rabbis, their speeches, and the musicians at the service. Their format for the Erev service consisted of two rabbis and a small band, with one of the rabbis accompanying on a guitar. The congregants were so engaged in the music and the atmosphere that I think if the room allowed for more space, some folks might have started to dance. It has been almost two years since our first visit to this Beyt Knesset and we still try to attend this special, monthly service.
When visiting family in the greater Philadelphia area, my daughter and I have also been able to attend services at a temple in Philadelphia. A little different from what I was used to, but it is Sephardic. While my father was a Sephardic Jew, when he was returning to Judaism (that story will have to be shared at another time), unfortunately, he did not have access to other Sephardic Jews (of course, this was during the era prior to the internet) and so our services, and even some meals my mother made would be considered Ashkenazic. Do not ask me how he learned to do so, but my father was blessed to chant the prayers, like other Sephardic rabbis, rather than simply reading them, which was a delight to hear.
Then, one day earlier this year and during the mourning period of my brother, I was speaking with my daughter, who is now a teenager, about starting our own journey to visit Beyt Knessets throughout our surrounding area, then expanding to the rest of the Northeast, the West Coast, the rest of the United States, and eventually internationally as well. As Sephardic Jews, we were initially looking for just Sephardic Beyt Knessets, but given the limited amount in our area, we decided to expand our journey to include Beyt Knessets that either stimulated our curiosity or ones that we had heard of through word of mouth. Over the last several months, when we have been able to take the drive up, we have begun to attend services at my father’s Beyt Knesset again. I am grateful we have returned and we try our best to make the most of our visits.
During this journey, I have learned that it is okay to attend a service at another Beyt Knesset. It does not mean that I am less committed to my home temple nor am I walking away from my dad’s legacy. I go into services with an open heart and my goal is always to gain whatever I can from our experiences; while being able to meet other Jews, connect spiritually with them, and create great memories for my daughter and me. Through this platform, I welcome you to join us on our journey.