by Emma Flowers, Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, Class of 2014

While an intern at JFS, Emma Flowers contributed this story to the June 2014 issue of the Jewish Family Network newsletter. She is currently a student at Bennington College in Vermont.

Sharing Our Stories: Baby Steps Toward Community Building

It took a number of years for Julie Wolf, a freelance writer and until recently Jewish Family Network's newsletter editor, to proudly embrace her Jewish heritage. Growing up as a member of a traditional (for that time) Conservative temple in South Florida, she and her family were quite Jewish but not particularly observant, and Julie never felt a strong connection to the Jewish community. She and her twin sister attended Hebrew school just long enough to become b'not mitzvah (plural of bat mitzvah) and take part in their Hebrew school's graduation trip to Disney World. Although there was a substantial Jewish population in South Florida when she was growing up, she continually experienced an unshakable feeling of being part of a minority. The "otherness" Julie felt because she was Jewish followed her into adulthood. Over time, ambivalence gave way to pride in her heritage. She and her husband, Keith Wagner (pictured), live in Framingham. This is Julie's story:

Julie's involvement in the Metrowest Jewish community really started in 2009, when Malka Young, a social worker at JFS (Jewish Family Service), suggested that she try Jewish Family Network. At the time, Julie's youngest child was 3 years old, but she hadn't been actively involved with other Jewish families in an organized way. In 2001 Julie and her sister (who also made her home in Framingham) had given birth to their first daughters only three days apart, and they had never looked outside of themselves for organized companionship or community. Essentially, they were their own moms' group.

With encouragement, Julie took a leap of faith and agreed to lead a playgroup for Jewish Family Network. As attendance grew, and "regulars" started to connect with each other and with her, she began to realize the immense value of being part of a group like this. Julie experienced the common thread among all the mothers in the playgroup. "We were all interested in becoming a part of the Jewish community in a casual way," Julie says. She discovered, along with the other mothers, that a community builds itself when you allow yourself to get involved, even if at first it feels daunting. By participating in Jewish Family Network programs, Julie didn't have to actively seek out connections, because they simply were there. Through her work with Jewish Family Network, Julie learned that developing community means "putting down our roots wherever we are now."

When her youngest, Lila, started first grade, she transitioned out of Jewish Family Network. To Julie's surprise, her involvement in the Jewish community blossomed. She chose to accept other leadership opportunities, including some in her own temple. Julie's identical twin frequently gets stopped in the grocery store by members of the community who mistake her for Julie. Because of the frequency of these mix-ups, Julie's visibility in the Metrowest Jewish community has become an inside joke for the sisters. Despite the comic confusion, Julie says, it's "a real gift to encounter so many fellow community members in an area as large as Framingham. It makes the town seem much smaller, like an extended neighborhood instead of just another place." Julie's children have also experienced this sense of community. Her two older children, Rachel and Benjamin, often accompanied Julie and their younger sister to JFN's pot luck Shabbat dinners, family concerts, or other events. Her oldest daughter connected in her own way, meeting little children and their parents who later hired her as a mother's helper.

Through Jewish Family Network, Julie's entire family has had the opportunity to experience the joy of being part of a Jewish community. Although Julie's husband, Keith, is not Jewish, her children understand that as a family, they are Jewish. Julie's childhood Jewish community spurned interfaith marriages such as hers. In the late '70s, when her rabbi gave a sermon promoting the acceptance of interfaith families, there was an audible gasp in the sanctuary. Julie and Keith rarely encounter such discrimination today.

Julie is grateful to live in a community where most temples welcome interfaith families, and Keith himself is involved deeply with the Jewish community and their children's Jewish education. She believes that a unique and powerful energy is created when non-Jews like her husband make the choice to take part in a Jewish lifestyle. It was Keith who helped Julie find a long-lost sense of Jewish pride. "He kept Passover with me when I did it for the first time at age 28," she says, recalling the gesture that took her by surprise. "That winter he packed up his Christmas ornaments with no questions asked. I realized that I was loved because of who I was. It was things like this that allowed me to embrace my Jewish identity," she explains.       

The strong connection between Julie and Keith mirrors the bond that Julie has created with the Jewish community in Framingham. There is an unspoken sense of understanding, trust, and support. Julie hopes that her children will grow up to appreciate the community they are being raised in. With age comes perspective. Julie emphasizes with both her son and daughters that being part of the Jewish community is vital. After years of exploration and loving support from Keith and others in her life, Julie now feels she owns her role in her community. "I don't feel like I'm just showing up anymore, like I did when I was a child," she says. "Instead, I am developing meaningful Jewish relationships and teaching my children to do the same. We're all the better for it." 

Have a story you'd like to share with Jewish Family Network? Please contact our newsletter editor, Dawn Doucette-Kaplan, and she will interview you!

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