What Judaism Means to Me

Posted on January 2, 2018 by Shelley Drozd

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of remarks made by Shelley Drozd during Yom Kippur’s Reflection Service. We enjoyed it so much we wanted to share her words with you.

I feel my Judaism in my DNA. I come from a long line of Glasers who arrived in this country from Latvia in the late 1800s. After pushing a cart of dry goods around the Neshanic countryside for awhile, my greatgrandfather Sachne sent for his bride from the old country, settled in Raritan, and bought a store. His son David—my grandfather – would marry Rebecca Bloom, also from Latvia. Together they would have 10 children, who would keep that store operating for more than 100 years.

The Glasers were humble merchants, but they were also a proud founding family of one of the earliest Jewish communities in our area. Founded as Congregation Ansche Chesed, today it is Temple Sholom of Bridgewater. When I was very young and the temple was still in Somerville, my father and I used to walk across town to shul on the High Holy Days. Now, every time the Days of Awe roll around, it makes me smile to think about how he relished reminding my brother and me—sometimes playfully and sometimes pointedly—that “the book is open.”

There’s no doubt I inherited from my mother the DNA that compels service to the community. In her younger days, Mom was active in Sisterhood and Hadassah, and even ran bingo for a while at Temple Sholom. She held meetings, sat on boards, got active in local politics, and hosted frequent food and social events. Since she did all this with us kids in tow, I had a front-row seat to the difference she was making all around us.

My parents imprinted upon me the Judaism that honors tradition and service. But it took my interfaith marriage to teach me how to practice Judaism in a way my largely cultural upbringing didn’t. Before I married Joseph, who was raised Catholic, we agreed we would raise our children in the Jewish faith. Still, when our only daughter, Rebekah, finally came along, I realized how woefully underqualified I was for that task.

And so I resolved that our family would learn together. First, I made sure Rebekah was steeped in the traditions and company of the elder Glasers, who blessedly were with us for a very long time. Those great-aunts and uncles helped Beks understand l’dor vador, her place in our long, generational chain. We also joined Temple Beth-El for its warm welcoming of families like ours. Joe had never experienced a rabbi as accessible to him as Beth-El’s new, young rabbi, Arnie Gluck. I have no doubt that Arnie’s wise counsel to our young family helped bring Joe comfortably into the Jewish fold.

Eventually, we left New Jersey and built a house in the more affordable Poconos. We also joined the “local” Reform temple in Easton, some 30 miles away, immersing ourselves in the life of this small, historic Jewish community, now 175 years old. Before I knew it, my closet became crowded with all the hats I was wearing. Music teacher. Executive board member. Fundraiser. Ritual chair. Head of the rabbi search committee. For his part, Joe helped build sukkahs, paint classrooms, and spent many a Saturday night printing easel-sized lyric sheets for my lessons at school the next Sunday morning. He also made gallons of homemade spaghetti sauce for our klezmer spaghetti dinner fundraiser, where, like at home, he ran the kitchen like clockwork. Meanwhile, Rebekah was learning her alef-bet and her prayers, which I learned right alongside her. And we all forged friendships that endure to this day.

As I grew older, I began to long for a way to marry my Jewish life with my professional life. In 2006 I saw a path. I sat at two deathbeds that year. One was blessed, a 96-year-old uncle who was ready to go, and one was tragic: the untimely death of my best childhood friend. I watched the care and comfort given my loved ones by hospice nurses and hospital chaplains. Inspired, I became a hospice volunteer and returned to school, eventually earning a degree in religious studies from Moravian College and Theological Seminary. I plan to begin my clinical pastoral education training soon.

Visiting different faith communities was a requirement of my world religions class at the seminary. Some of my classmates were from New Jersey and didn’t want to return to the Lehigh Valley for Shabbat services at our shul. I told them I had just the place, and arranged to meet them at Temple Beth-El.

That visit was a homecoming and a revelation for me. And just like 20 years earlier, I knew Beth-El was where my family once again belonged. And so I drive 30 miles again: for services, for choir, for learning opportunities, for the essential social justice work of the Interfaith Hospitality Network. You, Temple Beth-El, are worth every mile.

To quote a Catie Curtis song, “If I can’t change the world, I’ll change the world within my reach.” I’m here to tell you Temple Beth-El is a great place to start doing that.

by Shelley Drozd

Originally published in the January-February 2018 Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.