Feeling more alone than at any time since arriving in New York, I looked inside myself for anything that could anchor me to bring me back to who I was, to move away from illusions of romance to my central sticking point. Suddenly and unexpectedly, being a Jew meant more to me than anything else in the world.
I said to Susan, “Do you have these parties to try to draw people to your church?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, happy with what she was doing and with the fact that I understood her actions.
“What if a person is not interested in the Church?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, as if she had called up a mental checklist. “I think you want to talk with our social worker.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. A medical professional trained to help people realize their place in the world would obviously understand that this church isn’t for everybody.
Upon being introduced to the social worker, I was pleased to see that she looked like a level-headed person, someone I hoped would want to help people – particularly vulnerable people – get back on track.
After a little small talk, I got right to the point. “What happens when someone Jewish comes to your church, comes to you, and they’re lost, confused and looking for answers? Being a professional and a social worker, do you steer them to some Jewish organization that can help them?”
Smiling, she said, “No. Our church is equipped to help them with what they’re going through.”
A chill went down my spine. I thought of all the lonely and lost Jewish people who have come to these parties, people like me, who have been positively affected by all their kindnesses, leading them perhaps to give up thousands of years of connection to who they are. And the saddest part is that they wouldn’t even know what they were giving up.
“Can’t we just think of this as one big orchestra?” I asked her. “Each group has their own instrument to play. The Jews have their own instrument to play.”
She just looked at me and smiled, frustrating me more.
“At least let them find out what their own faith says about their issues before they would consider something else,” I implored.
Again she smiled and said, “You should really meet our priest. He’s Jewish, you know.”
This was one of those moments when you either laugh or cry.
“Sure, I’d like to meet him,” I said.
She left, and a minute later she was walking through the crowd with a 30ish man who was receiving all kinds of positive greetings from those in attendance. When introduced to the priest, I was struck by his calm, sweet demeanor.
He said to me, “I understand you have questions. Ask me anything you like.”
I blurted out, “How did you become the priest here?”
He smiled. “Good question,” he said, with eyes twinkling.
“Growing up Jewish,” he began, “at a certain point – my early 20s – I had a crisis of faith. I began to question whether there was a God in the world. I was deeply hurt by this.
“I had to do something. So I came upon the following idea: I would use Catholicism as a vehicle and an experiment to see if there was a God in the world.”
Now he was smiling broadly. He added, with enthusiasm, “And I do see Him now!”
A very obvious question came to mind and I blurted it out. “Couldn’t you have used Judaism as a vehicle to see if there was a God in the world?”
His blissful countenance was no more. He looked confused, as if he was trying to answer the question but couldn’t find the words.
No longer confused myself, I left the party and thought about what had transpired during my subway ride home.
I couldn’t get out of my mind how many fellows Jews we could be losing.
That Shabbos, at my once-a-month Beginner’s Service, I happily absorbed all that had happened. I felt like I had been deprived of water in the desert and had now come to an oasis. Perhaps it was the little I had learned at this service that helped me withstand Susan’s beauty and her friends’ warmth.
It was very important to me that other people learned about this Beginner’s Service, so I decided to write a letter to a Jewish publication. I had just seen a Woody Allen film whereby his character leaves Judaism for another religion. Responding to his mother’s troubled inquiry as to why he took this unfortunate route, the character says, “With Judaism, I guess I got off on the wrong foot.” With this in mind, I titled my letter, “The Right Foot.”
I described my experience at that church party and my encounter with the friendly people there, including the social worker and the Jewish priest. I expressed my sadness that some Jews get involved with such a church, not even knowing the beauty of what they’re giving up. I mentioned the “wrong foot” line from the Woody Allen movie, adding that if one wants to get on the “right foot” regarding Judaism there is a Beginner’s Service that I was attending. I left my answering service phone number for anyone seeking more details about this Beginner’s Service, where everything is explained in a patient and kind way.
I was grateful to receive a few calls from people wanting to learn more about their Jewish roots.
Then I got another call – from the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) – that would change my life. NJOP promoted beginner’s services around the country, and wanted more details about the service I attended in Cobble Hill so they could add it to their list of resources. The caller told me about the weekly Shabbos Beginner’s Service led by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald at Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Informing the caller that I was a playwright, he said, “That’s great. Rabbi Buchwald just had a play put on for the 10th anniversary of the Beginner’s Service.”
This was music to my ears. I called Rabbi Buchwald to gauge his interest in reading some of my Jewish-oriented plays for a possible production at his shul. He invited me to the shul’s Beginner’s Service. I accepted his invitation, and became a regular attendee for a full year.
Why did I keep attending the Beginner’s Service? Because of something with great impact that Rabbi Buchwald said to me: “I’m not asking you to give up your secular interests. I’m just asking you to put Judaism first.”
After that year under Rabbi Buchwald’s guidance, I began attending a synagogue in my Queens neighborhood as a Shomer Shabbos Jew. Yes, my plays’ characters returned to their Jewish roots – and I followed their path.
What ultimately led me to a deepening commitment to practice Judaism was my attendance at a church party and my revulsion at what I saw there. The beauty of a Susan and the warmth of people walking a different course in life than me can’t compare to the beauty, warmth and sense of being home that comes with following the path that is mine to traverse.
Alan Magill is the Senior Forum columnist for The Jewish Press.
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