Not so long ago, or so it seems, in a land by the sea I fell in love with a Scottish doctor, Isabelle Rooney. She studied with a Reform rabbi and became a Jew by Choice in 1999. Rabbi Jonathan Stein married us under a huppa garlanded with Scottish tartan ribbons.
Flash forward to 2008, the Great Recession. Like so many others, we lost so much. Isabelle got a job in Switzerland. We moved from sunny La Jolla, California, to Basel in the dead of winter. Isabelle began her new high-pressure job. I became a hausmann, a.k.a. stay-at-home dad, looking after our young children. As a journalist for the San Diego Tribune, I had advocated for compassion and legalization for undocumented immigrants. I now found myself alienated in an emotionally cold German-speaking region. The government required us to pay a Religious Tax. I marked down jüdisch.
Feeling exiled, I yearned for a spiritual connection. One day, I donned my Day-Glo cycling helmet and rode the cobblestone streets of Old Basel. I came upon a building with a dome – the Synagogue of Basel. A wave of warmth came over me. I asked an armed guard to enter and climbed up steep stairs to the synagogue office. I explained to the synagogue manager our situation: a Jewish family seeking a Congregation for the High Holy Days. “Willkommen!” he said. “There are just a few details.”
I was ushered into the Rabbi’s study. Pale and otherworldly with a big beard, he looked both young and ageless. I smiled at him in his black yarmulke. He looked at me in my yellow helmet. He raised a rabbinic eyebrow. “Please write down the names of your Jewish grandparents on all four sides.”
I thought, What’s going on here? Isn’t this what the Nazis did – demanding identities of Jewish ancestors?”
He cast a pale eye. “You are welcome,” he said. “But your wife and children are not allowed.”
I stumbled out, disoriented. We paid the religious tax, but the money only went to the “official” synagogue that discriminated against us. Thank God for the separation of church and state in the United States.
Two years later, Isabelle got a terrific job in the Bay Area. I’ll never forget the day we came here to this beautiful temple on a high hill, with a light-filled dome like a yarmulke. We were welcomed to Peninsula Temple Shalom. While the kids attended religious school, I donned my Day-Glo helmet and rode my bike to Crystal Springs reservoir, feeling at peace. Viva studied with Cantor Barry Reich for her Bat Mitzvah. Rabbi Rebekah Stern welcomed our family and guests from many traditions.
I am so impressed by the diversity of our congregation. By the warmth and prayer-inspiring sermons of Rabbi Dan Feder. By the central role of women. By the values of tolerance and reaching out. When my parents were ill and dying in Denver, the rabbis and congregants here who had never met my folks, offered comfort and condolences. This is our spiritual home.
I remember the Passover prayer: “Welcome the Stranger, for you were Strangers in Switzerland – whoops! – Egypt.