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My Spiritual Journey: Remarks by Isabelle Kaczmarek, Kallat B'reishit, 5779 / 2018

30/10/2018 12:56:11 PM


I was once a good Catholic girl.

My parents were immigrants who came here from post-war Europe...Polish Catholic refugees who met and married in a British DP camp in Germany. When they came to Canada, they spent a short time in the depths of Northern Ontario, where my sister was born, but ultimately settled in Oshawa, where my father worked in a car parts factory.

They brought with them their religion and their culture, which was what shaped and defined their lives and mine in my formative years. My father was one of the founders of the Polish Catholic church in Oshawa, where we went to mass every Sunday. I grew up attending a Catholic school, went to an after school Polish language program, belonged to Polish Brownies, then Girl Guides, then lead Brownies and Girl Guides. I went to Polish Girl Guide camp in the summer, in a Polish community just south of Algonquin Park, where we sang wartime songs from the Polish Resistance around the campfire. I learned (and still remember) the songs of our mass and Christmas hymns, of course all in Polish.

I sang at recitals for Polish and Catholic holidays, and acted in a play for Polish millennium celebrations in 1966.

The community I grew up in was made up mostly of other displaced Polish people who came to Oshawa to work in the auto industry. They became my Canadian family, because the rest of my family was all still in Poland.

I lived in a very diverse blue collar area, with my friends being the Italian girls across the street, the Ukrainians down the block, and of course, the Polish girls who I knew from church. We all had one foot in this country and the other in Europe. Here we felt like outsiders, because we were from immigrants. But there we really didn’t belong either, because we were Canadian-born.

Our Polish church and community was not exempt from the problems the Catholic church was and still is having. The priests were often alcoholics, some were angry and harsh, and although I didn’t personally experience any kind of abuse (other than verbal abuse from my many nun teachers), there was definitely an undercurrent of unease in our community with the priests. Some came and left fairly quickly. One even had the good sense to leave the priesthood, and ultimately married. But not all were bad. Some actually came to the seminary as a calling, with goodness in their hearts. Those few stood out, because they were the minority.

As a teenager, I grew bored, cynical and disenchanted with the Catholic church, with all it’s problems and hypocrisies. I also grew apart from many of the people who I grew up with in my Polish community as I began to understand the complex and troubled lives so many of them lived, having brought with them the traumas from the war. I was desperate to leave all of this behind, especially Oshawa itself.

I did so at the age of 17, and never really returned.

That, in effect, was the end of any real connection I had with the Catholic church, and the stifling Polish Canadian community I grew up in.

As a child and adolescent, I had no knowledge of anything Jewish. The word Jew, or Żyd in Polish, was not something I heard much. It really wasn’t until my very early twenties, living in Toronto, that I began to meet people who were Jewish, Ira included, and that’s when I started to learn little by little about the Jewish world.

My conversion to Judaism didn’t take the common path, happening prior to marriage. In fact, it happened more than 15 years later.

In the early years of my relationship with Ira, we lived mostly non-religious lives. Once a year Ira went to shul, for Kol Nidre. I spent Christmas Eve (which is when Poles traditionally celebrate Christmas) and usually Easter Sunday with my parents and sister. Sometimes I even attended midnight mass with them. Ira would drive out to Whitby, where my parents then lived, and have lunch with us on Christmas day.

The one Jewish event we celebrated together was a Passover seder every year at Ira’s great uncle and aunt’s house in North York. That was an interesting experience for me, since the hockey play offs, which often coincided with Passover and were on in the background, were just as important as whatever was going on around the table!

There was some unhappiness in Ira’s family that I wasn’t Jewish, but it didn’t affect our lives much because his family lived in Florida and I had little interaction with them. His sisters who lived in California visited us often. I got to know them well and they were always wonderful to me.

When we started to talk about having children, Ira was quite adamant that he wanted to raise our children Jewish. I was a little surprised but I agreed, since by that point I had absolutely no interest in Catholicism, but I told him since I didn’t know what raising Jewish children meant, I hoped he did. It turns out he did, but it would be difficult without my participation and eventual help.

When Adrian, our first child, was born, Ira wanted him to have a ritual circumcision followed by a celebration, so he looked for someone who would be willing to do it. Not so easy in this city when the mother isn’t Jewish, but he found a mohel who agreed to do it at our house. There’s actually a funny story attached to this that some of you might know, that I won’t go into now, but if you’re interested, please ask me after services! So we had our first Jewish ritual and simcha, but I didn’t even participate in or observe it...when I realized what was going to happen, I stayed upstairs. I came down eventually for the food!

And that was it for awhile.

Our involvement with the Jewish community took another step forward after the birth of our daughter, Sabrina Ruth, almost 4 years later. We had a lovely baby naming ceremony for her at our home, led by Ira, with Hebrew readings, a bracha over wine in her brand new Kiddish cup, which was attended by our family and close friends. It was very special.

It was also time to start Jewish education for Adrian. Ira thought the best way was to join a synagogue, and after some shul shopping, he settled on Darchei Noam. It was first introduced to him by our good friends Iris and Alan. The services were familiar to him, coming from a Conservative background, and being egalitarian was appealing. Very importantly, he was assured by Larry Pinsker, the rabbi at the time, that the Reconstructionist Movement recognized patrilineal descent. For all those reasons Ira thought it would be a good fit for us. I had very little involvement in the decision about which community we would join...I still knew very little about Judaism. Having friends who belonged helped the decision feel more comfortable for me.

We stayed for a few years, but were largely uninvolved. We went to High Holiday services, which I sat through, but didn’t understand at all. We enrolled our son into the Hebrew School and struggled with him, along with the school, because of his unwillingness to participate appropriately.

So we left, and were not involved with any community for a few years. We visited Oreinu, the Humanist shul, a few times. Ira was committed to having Adrian become a Bar Mitzvah, and the time to start planning was approaching. Ira gave Adrian a choice. He could be part of a group celebration at Oreinu, or he could have a more traditional Bar Mitzvah, with Torah and Haftorah reading, like Ira himself had had. Either way, Adrian was going to do something to mark the event. When the 11 year old decided for himself that he wanted to do an individual Bar Mitzvah, we decided to rejoin DN and start preparing.

That was when my love story with Darchei Noam began.

Although during our first time as members we were only peripherally involved, when we returned we were welcomed with open arms. Tina, who was now the Rabbi, and Ady Bell, the principal of the Hebrew School at the time, facilitated the completion of Adrian’s last 2 years of HS. One of the HS teachers tutored him in the remaining curriculum at night, and upon graduating he joined the B’nei Mitzvah class. We were so supported by Rob and all the other lay leaders who took part in preparing these kids for their special event. I was amazed how inclusive everyone was, in spite of us being virtual strangers in the community. Thanks to everyone who helped us plan and navigate the event, it was a wonderful experience, for me especially. I was starting to feel like I was part of something.

When my daughter started Hebrew School, I decided we needed to set an example for her of how important we felt her Jewish education was, so I volunteered with the HS committee. What does a person do to help, who doesn’t know much about Judaism? Organize food of course! I was welcomed onto the committee and received all the guidance I needed. And through this I learned a little.

We developed a small HS cohort of parents that became quite close, thanks to our daughters being in the same class and becoming friends. My daughter was developing her Jewish education and community, and we attended events and holidays as a family.

Organizing food eventually led to co-chairing the committee, with, interestingly enough, another person who was not yet Jewish. Nobody seemed to notice that the Bylaws clearly stated that non Jews couldn’t chair committees!

Adrian had finished his synagogue education, my daughter was firmly ensconced in the HS, and now Ira had been invited to join the Board. Through his involvement first as a Member-at-Large, then on the Executive, we met a lot of terrific people.

I think you can probably see where this is going. I’ve always said, the more you get involved, the more you feel like you belong, and that certainly was happening to me. The only problem for me was that my kids were becoming knowledgeable about Judaism, and I still knew relatively little and was beginning to feel left behind.

So I thought, why not convert? That should help!

Also, as my daughter started to prepare for her Bat Mitzvah, I realized how important it was to me to be up there on the bima, with the rest of my Jewish family. When Adrian became a Bar Mitzvah, only Ira could go up for an aliyah.

I approached Tina, who hugged me and told me it would be an honour to sponsor my conversion.

I really enjoyed the classes that Ira and I attended together. I think he was very moved that I’d come to this decision on my own, and was certainly 100% present for the process. And his sisters were pretty thrilled, too. Unfortunately neither of his parents lived to see his Jewish family.

I don’t want to suggest that the whole process has been easy. Building a Jewish home has at times been challenging for me. I had no frame of reference for Jewish traditions, except what Ira remembered from growing up. We bring with us our traditions and practices from our childhood homes, and I had none, at least not any Jewish. My friends have been instrumental in helping me figure out what might resonate for our family, since I’ve shared in many of their traditions and celebrations.

I often feel quite lonely, as I have not had any of the cultural experiences that have shaped the lives of so many of my Jewish friends, and that they share together, like for example, Jewish camp.

Since those early days on the HS committee, I have been on numerous other committees, including chairing Membership, Governance, and being on the Board and the Executive. I have learned so much about this community and the wonderful people in it, the values they have, the choices we can make, and the flexibility to practice in the way that works for each individual. Some believe in God and some don’t. Some love Torah study, and some have difficulties with the Torah. There’s a place for all of us.

And the food is always great!

There are 3 people that I have to thank individually for helping me navigate through this journey.

Of course my husband is the first. Ira, did you ever imagine how our life together would unfold, when we had those first discussions about having children, and how it was really important to you that we raise them Jewish? The verdict is still out on them, but look where I am.

Rabbi, you have been a tremendous support to our family, and particularly to me. You’ve helped us get through some very difficult times, and even had to smooth a few tense moments during my Bet Din. I don’t know if you remember… You have truly been my inspiration.

My parents graciously accepted, if not embraced, my relationship with a Jewish man. My father didn’t live to see grandchildren, and my mother accepted that we were raising our kids as Jews, and even participated in some life cycle events. Unfortunately she didn’t live to see my daughter become a Bat Mitzvah, nor did she know that I was converting to Judaism. I don’t know what they would have said about my conversion, but I can probably guess. During the Christmas right after my father passed away, in 1983, my mother gave me a framed photo of the pope as a gift…….to remind me where I come from. I think she must have been a little emotionally vulnerable at the time!

My sister Lucy, on the other hand, supported my conversion, and has totally embraced our Jewish lives and is part of all of our celebrations. And for that I thank you. You are an important member of our family, and an honorary Jew.

I’d like to thank our community. Our lay leaders navigated our children through their B’nei Mitzvot, and supported me after my mother passed away, even though I was not Jewish at the time. I thank you for your generosity of time and spirit, and your incredible expertise.

The wonderful people I have worked with in this community on committees, task forces, the Board and the Executive have helped me find my confidence and my voice through all you’ve taught me and your trust in me.

And my dear friends. I wouldn’t know most of you if it weren’t for Darchei Noam. I finally found likeminded people who I feel can understand me and where I come from, at least to some degree. You have embraced us into your families, your celebrations and your traditions, and it means so much to us. Thank you.

Upon completion of my conversion, Tina welcomed me and 2 other members of our community whom she had also sponsored (it was a banner year for conversions that year!), up to the bima for our first aliyah. It was wonderful to finally fully belonging.

After the service, a member of the original HS committee whom I worked with so many years ago, came up to me. She wished me a Mazel Tov, welcomed me to the tribe, and then said we would not refer to being a convert anymore. Because now I was a Jew and that was all that mattered, not how I got here.

Shabbat Shalom!

Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784