I have always been Jewish. Not just by birth, but as a key part of my identity. Growing up in Miami, I was the one in the family that was involved and always wanted to be at Temple. I went to Sunday school, Hebrew school, and taught Israeli folk dance after Hebrew school! Though I used the excuse of not liking my Hebrew teacher to drop out of Hebrew school about 6 months before my bat mitzvah, I stayed involved and completed confirmation. (Not sure what happened there, but I made it up 40 years later.)
I was in the first class to attend Alexander Muss High School in Israel in 1972 (then known as the Greater Miami High School in Israel, started by my Rabbi Morris Kippur). Forty of us slept, ten to a room, on cots in classrooms in an unfinished high school near Haifa. It’s quite a different campus now!
After I was old enough to drive and my parents had gotten divorced, I still went to Temple but not as often and my connection started to wane.
For the next few years, my active connection to Jewish community continued to wane – I went to college in Tampa, Florida which had no Hillel at the time. Synagogues were too far away from where I lived. I never really dated Jewish guys.
A few years after my first marriage ended, I met Michael. We were very different people; in background, in upbringing, in political/ social beliefs. You name it, we were different. For example, in his teen years, he was an Evangelical United Brethren! No dancing, no smoking, no drinking. We were VERY different, but by the time we met, he had “mellowed” a bit. Suffice to say that WAY far right and WAY far left somehow fell in love.
Michael started asking about Judaism and I found a class at a Conservative temple in south Tampa. He liked the class but didn’t like the congregation or the rules for inter-faith marriages. I somehow felt weirdly at home and joined an adult b’nai mitzvah class. Because of the ‘rules’ there, I couldn’t join the temple as a family, so we were both turned off – again.
We moved to Charlotte in 1999, and purposefully chose a home that was semi-close to Shalom Park. Yet, when my eldest sister passed away the day after we moved, it never occurred to me to seek out temple. I went to Saturday morning services at Temple Israel for a short time, but it didn’t stick.
I do a little stand-up routine on how I met the Rifkins: I met Tonda on the Thursday before Passover in 2005, and by that Saturday, we were at their house, celebrating the holiday with their family and close friends. That really struck both Michael and me. Michael likened it to Abraham opening the sides of this tent to let in the strangers.
Shortly after that, Michael walked into Temple Beth El for the first time, and as they say, it was all over after that. Intro to Judaism, conversion, bar mitzvah, committees, Mitzvah Day, Brotherhood, SPICE. In Florida it was Janet Abel and Michael … Abel? At Temple Beth El it was Michael Martin and Janet … who?
I began attending services with him on a regular basis, and we were making friends. The night Michael died suddenly, Mitch Rifkin was the first person I called. The next day, at 8 a.m., he & Tonda were at our house and shortly after that both rabbis were there, then more and more people. I was surrounded with love and support.
That was ten years ago. I still attend services, though not as often, but when I do, I find the space to be the quiet, meditative place I need. I have made lasting friendships at TBE and I know that the place, the space, the people, and the clergy are always there when I need them.
Janet lives in the Blakeney area of Charlotte with her (elderly, hairless) dog, Yoda. She works full time at Piedmont Natural Gas /Duke Energy, where she will soon celebrate her 20th anniversary. Janet is a certified yoga teacher and is considering a certification in therapeutic yoga to work with seniors in her retirement.