Tools for Elul: Simon F. Leiderman
My story is more or less the classic Jewish story. For those who don't know, I was born in Colombia. I was the third generation yiddische boychick, grandchild of Ashkenazic refugees who gravitated to each other by word of mouth to the cities where, much like here a hundred years prior, others did. One Jew meets another, and they learn that Mr. Kahn knew how to daven, and Mr. Rabinovich had a big living room, so that was the place to go for Shabbos, and so on. But as was the case, I went to the congregation that my parents went to because that's where their parents went, and because it just happened to be the only Jewish congregation in the city. It still is. And it was a small community, with lots of politics and intrigue. My family stayed out of most of it, and because my father was a doctor instead of a business owner, much of the politics seemed to skirt us anyhow. But the whole feel of small town close quarters gossip never sat well with me, and I carried much of that in a bizarre form of PTSD. Before you ask, yes, most of the news events from Narcos were the background of my youth and adolescence, and now you have an idea of why I ended up in the United States. I need not go into detail. But again, this connects back to the story of us all. We are survivors, immigrants -- or their descendants.
After all the deambulation between 1990 and 2008, I ended up in Pittsburgh. This city has become my home, as Medellin became home to my grandparents, as Pittsburgh became the home of so many others who were immigrants or their descendants. A few years later, I'm married and now have a child. But still no membership in a Jewish community. Why? Is this not the most Jewish thing to do? Ask why? Over and over? A Monty Python movie comes to mind here. Well, I had a reticence to join any congregation. Probably much of that PTSD I mentioned earlier is to blame. But there's more, always. Being Jewish isn't easy. Everyone reading this can attest to that. So much to remember, so many obligations, to be cognizant of our place in the world, in history, in our local community. I mean, how many can go through a day without thinking that it is incumbent upon them to live up to our forebears' goals of preserving culture, religion, history, gastronomy, ethics, family name, etc.? And where did I see as the place where I could plant some roots in a Jewish community? Did I think I could agree with the mission of this or that congregation better? Did this one speak more to my desire for a completeness of liturgical content? Or was it more driven by my desire to give my then-infant son a foundation in all those aforementioned attributes?
I delayed for two years. In the end, it wasn't me who decided, but my wife, Kari. "We're joining this one!" You guys can picture my eye roll. Here we go. So much baggage I carried around for so long from my community. This family and this family had a disagreement over business that has had them fighting for three generations; this brother cheated this brother; my family is more important than yours; my kid is a better (insert qualifier), and don't you ever forget it. If you think a big congregation has issues, I invite you to travel to Colombia to a small one in a hostile environment.
In Kari's defense, she was raised Catholic, but now is non-practicing. All the same, wherever we joined, it had to be for the comfort of both of us, not just mine. And, more importantly, we needed to join somewhere if we wanted our son, Sam, to have a Jewish upbringing and develop his own sense of Jewish identity, along with the moral, ethical, liturgical, and historical trimmings that come with it. Carolyn met with us, then Rabbi Henry, then Mimsie, then many others, mostly through Tot Shabbat. My reticence, with the friendly faces, soon began to dissipate.
Having no history means you get to write your own. One day at a time, one Tot Shabbat at a time. We met others who were transplants like us. Interfaith like us. We met others who had similar views to ours. And we made friends. And here we are, four years later. One day, I got an email asking if I was interested in running for a board position, because I had been nominated. Whaaaaaaat? All those times I heard about my dad or my mom being asked to be on this board, or this committee, it never crossed my mind that one day I would be given that choice. And, like my parents taught me, I accepted it as the honor I knew it to be. And I guess in a way, I came into my own as a member. And I am no longer reticent. Why? I keep asking. And the more I think about it, the more I say to myself that it's because someone is expecting something greater from me that I am yet to accomplish.
We are all meant to be more than what we currently are. We can always be better parents, better spouses, better employees, better managers, better teachers, better students, better children. Like Abraham said that fateful day, "Hineni." Nobody knows when that call will come. May we be ready for it.
-Simon F. Leiderman, Congregant