Finding your spiritual home.
Finding a synagogue to call my religious and spiritual home has always been important to me. From an early age, my parents instilled in me the value of belonging to a synagogue and they led by example. In 1998, I joined Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, and for the past twenty-five years (25) it has become my “home” in ways that I could have never imagined. Let me explain.
From the beginning, B’nai Tikvah has been a warm and welcoming congregation. At a time when not all conservative synagogues were accepting of my interfaith marriage to my husband, Paul, and when all conservative synagogues were not fully egalitarian, B’nai Tikvah was accepting and egalitarian. Both of these were must-haves for me in joining a synagogue. When I joined B’nai Tikvah, I was asked and encouraged to become involved in the synagogue community right away and I did just that. Throughout my time at B’nai Tikvah, I have formed and continue to form lifelong friendships, I’ve served on the Board for many years, including as President, and I’ve laughed, cried, sang, danced, mourned and loved with my B’nai Tikvah Family. When my daughter-in-law had a stroke at a young age and I could not get the words out for a misheberach my “village of women” called out her name for me so that she was included. Likewise, when friends lose a family member or are going through a challenging time, I am honored to coordinate meals for shiva or to help them in any way I can.
On November 6, 2022 my sister, Janet, passed away, following her battle with many difficult medical and life issues, at a wonderful nursing and rehabilitation facility in Maryland. At the time of her passing, I was in Boston attending a JNF conference. My nephew and G-d son, Jason, called to tell me that his mother, my sister, had passed away. While Janet’s passing was not unexpected, the immediate sense of loss that overcame me caught me by surprise. Although my friends and the JNF family took good care of me, I just needed to go home and prepare myself for Janet’s funeral in Maryland. My children flew in from Florida and Washington State to support me during this difficult time.
The emotional support continued once I arrived in Maryland for Janet’s funeral. Rabbi Jesse Nagelberg, a close family friend who grew up at B’nai Tikvah and who now lives in Maryland, officiated at the funeral. His skill, kindness and support helped to make the funeral seamless and I was so appreciative to have him there at such a difficult time for me. Rabbi Nagelberg also spent time with some of my young relatives who had never been to a funeral, explaining what would happen so they felt included, knowledgeable, and not frightened by what was occurring. I was surrounded by my nephew, Jason and his wife Lauren’s, wonderful community during my time in Maryland. However, despite all the support I was receiving, I felt as though something was missing—my B’nai Tikvah family.
Following the funeral, all I wanted to do was go home to my B’nai Tikvah family. Before my husband Paul and I were even in the car, our Synagogue Administrator, Lesley, had already sent an email to our congregation notifying them of Janet’s death. Almost simultaneously with Lesley sending the email about my loss, friends from B’nai Tikvah had my home setup for shiva and plans were in place to provide meals for my family and me during shiva. The immediate outpouring of love and support from B’nai Tikvah was overwhelming. As congregants and others came to my home for shiva, I was reminded of how lucky I am to be part of such a wonderful community of caring people. Not only did B’nai Tikvah ensure I had a daily minyan at shiva so that I could say Kaddish for Janet, but they filled my home in the mornings and afternoons too. I was (and still am) in awe of their kindness, empathy, and their willingness to sit and talk with me about Janet and how I was feeling about losing her.
While I have made many shiva calls to other congregants over the years, the last time I sat shiva was when my mother died and shiva was held in her home, the home where I grew up. This time was different. I was sitting shiva at my home where I was wrapped in love and support by my friends and my B’nai Tikvah family.
Now that it has been several months since Janet passed, I felt compelled to share my story with all of you about how belonging to a synagogue and having my B’nai Tikvah family by my side during this difficult time has been so meaningful to me. I’ve learned from this experience that even with all the support I received from friends and family outside of B’nai Tikvah, there is no substitute for the support I receive from my synagogue.
As a senior member of the B’nai Tikvah community and of the Jewish community, in general, I wish for all of our young Jewish families to find the comfort of being part of a synagogue that I have found. I already see it happening with the young families who have recently joined B’nai Tikvah and that warms my heart in ways I will never be able to articulate.
Ruth Anne Koenick is member of the Heart of new Jersey community.