Yom Kippur two years ago was the first time my husband Andy joined me at our local Chabad for Kol Nidre, a special service on the eve of Yom Kippur. He was running late from work and when he arrived, all the seats were full. I could see him standing, in full view, at the back of the men’s section as the mechitza—the barrier separating the men and women in prayer (as is the custom at an Orthodox service)—didn’t reach the back of the room. I caught his eye, smiled at him from the other side and waved. He smiled and waved back.
I’m Jewish and Andy is not. It isn’t that Andy has refused to join me during the High Holidays or hadn’t wanted to go in all of the nearly seven years we had been together; I just never invited him. When he asked if I’d like him to join, I waved it off and told him he wouldn’t enjoy it, and not to bother.
I have always felt that religious beliefs are personal. While we had regularly attended Friday night Shabbat services together in the past, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were always my yearly refuge—it was a time to clear my thoughts and be introspective. I thought I could accomplish this only by attending services alone where I’d concentrate on the prayers and reflect on the past year. I also worried about abandoning him on the men’s side of the mechitza because I typically attended High Holiday services at Orthodox synagogues and thought he would be overwhelmed.
And then, as we began to discuss starting a family, I realized I couldn’t keep monopolizing these experiences. My time at High Holiday services meant so much to me and though, I worried Andy might feel bored or burdened, I knew I wanted our children to be raised Jewish and experience the services with us. I knew I needed to fully share these holidays with Andy so that he could, in turn, know how to share them with our children.
Andy wasn’t ignorant about these holidays in any way. In addition to taking an introduction to Judaism class at the Washington D.C. JCC and reading books on Judaism—such as This Is My God by Herman Wouk—he also knew Rosh Hashanah traditions from the yearly celebrations, which involved a delicious and huge meal cooked by my parents. He knew Yom Kippur as the holiday where he would join me in breaking my fast with takeout.
But he hadn’t attended a High Holiday service. He had never heard the beauty of the prayers chanted, and he had never reflected on the past year with me. He hadn’t read or heard the Unetaneh Tokef (a poem that’s chanted on both holidays) and taken its meaning to heart.
When had I asked him to join me for Yom Kippur services for the first and second night that year, he agreed without hesitation. While I fretted about what he would think, I knew the traditions I had wanted our family to keep and I wanted—needed—him to understand them.
And he did. He attended services on both evenings, following along—without me—in the English translation in the siddur (prayer book) as the Rabbi called out page numbers on the men’s side. On the second night, he even stayed after the service as the community broke the fast with platters of bagels and lox. He was much more social than I was, talking with the Rabbi, Rebbetzin and several congregants for a long while. Afterward, we walked home together and he told me he truly enjoyed himself.
I was incredibly relieved, happy and touched he felt that way; I regretted I had waited so long to invite him.
Even though Andy and I don’t share the same religious beliefs, he still made the effort to show up, participate and be present in those moments with me because he knows how important they are for the family we’re creating.
I would have loved a repeat of this in 2020, but due to COVID, we had to skip services. At that point, I was nearly seven months pregnant with our son and many of those annual traditions that I had taken for granted couldn’t take place. We celebrated the High Holidays in our own way, including a family Zoom call for Rosh Hashanah where we all dipped apples in honey.
This year, we are still deciding whether we are comfortable enough for indoor services, but I am hopeful that by the time my son has a conscious memory, he will be joining his father at services and appreciating the beauty of the day.