What happens when you are a person who has always tried to put family first, only to find that a part of your family does not feel the same way? This has been a problem we have been faced with over the past few months.
We do not have a big family. I was an only child to a single mom growing up. My husband just had one younger brother, his mom, dad, and step father.
When we first discussed conversion with our families the response was good, for the most part. My mom was wonderful. She took the news in stride and did her best to try and understand our new faith. She read books, she asked us questions, she even attended services with us. She was always engaged in helping us learn more as well by telling us about something she had read or heard. While we didn't really have any deep discussions on why we were converting, I could feel her acceptance by her actions. She was as excited about Ya'akov's bar mitzvah as we were, even helping to make kippot for the family, before her passing. That excitement, understanding and love never wavered. Quite the contrary, her interest in our conversion spurred us to an even greater excitement about conversion and our chosen faith.
Then there is the other side of the coin. My in laws. While my mother in law initially appeared to be happy (I attribute this to the fact that my husband was not religious for quite awhile and she was just happy he had "found religion" - it's a southern thing), over time her reaction changed to ambivalence. Yes, we had found a religion we were happy with, but she made no attempt to learn more, at least not that we could tell. There were no discussions on faith, no evidence of having read more about it, no questions about practice or even why we were converting. While I hoped for more, I was simply happy that she didn't disown us.
Then there was my brother in law. He took a different route. He ignored it. At least that's how it appeared to me. He was much like my mother in law in regards to his actions. There was no apparent attempt to learn more or even ask us questions concerning our choice.
Still, silence, I thought, was better than cutting us off from the family.
For awhile things were going well. Then it all changed. My mom passed away and her enthusiasm for learning more ended the family involvement in our faith. (As a side note, having family support is very helpful to new converts) So we were left with just my in laws and their superficial knowledge of Judaism (we go to service on Saturday and don't work that day, if they know more than that they have never let on to me this knowledge).
I won't go into the details of the falling out between me and my in laws, but suffice to say, they did not see the importance, or significance, in Ya'akov's bar mitzvah. To me it appeared that they believed it to be just another day, but Ya'akov got to stand in front of everyone. So when they did not come to his bar mitzvah, it broke my heart, and Ya'akov's. He had planned and worked so hard, he was already missing that his grandma wouldn't be there, he wanted the support of his memaw and papaw and uncle. I watched as my son would look towards the door, every time it opened, waiting with baited breath for his memaw to come in the door. I watched as the tears built up in his eyes that she was missing his big day. On a day when we all should have been happiest, the tears of sorrow were falling.
Then I waited. I waited for my in laws... I waited for them to show some sign that they understood the heartbreak they had caused by not coming. I waited for them to show some sign that they understood the importance of the day. I waited for them to at least call and congratulate Ya'akov. I waited for them to call to apologize to him. I waited...
Should I have been the first to call? Maybe. But after watching the hurt my son went through, I could not bring myself to talk to those who had caused him that pain. So part of the rift in the family may be my fault. Maybe I should have been the first to pick up the phone.
Now it is March. Ya'akov's bar mitzvah was in October. The contact with my in laws is minimal and strained. At least my mother in law does call, infrequently at best. I have no contact with my brother in law as his response to the entire situation was to blast us on facebook and on his blog, attacking myself, my husband, our family and our faith with his hatred and anger (because we did not call to wish them all a Merry Christmas).
How do you respond to being, effectively, shunned by your family? I have gone the route of becoming more involved with our synagogue. My synagogue family has helped me through the struggles of the past few months. The loss of my mother, the shunning by my in laws... my friends at shul have been there with a hug or a shoulder to cry on when I have been at my lowest. They have been there for the birth of our fifth child and the excitement around planning Yitzhak's bar mitzvah.
I miss my family. While I can forgive the things that were said, hard as that is as some of the things said broke my heart to a million pieces, but I cannot forget. The old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but name can never hurt me" is incorrect. Words can hurt just as badly as sticks and stones and the pain from those words goes deeper and lasts longer than most physical actions. So now I am trying to move on. To learn to live this new experience without the support of my family. I still have some aunts and cousins (my mom's side), and while we are not close, they do not judge us based on our faith and they do not seek to hurt our family with words.
I will continue on. One day I hope that my in laws will see us as the loving family we really are and not make jokes about us or treat us or our chosen faith with disrespect. I pray that day comes soon but if recent events are any indicator, I will be praying for many years to come. Until that day, I will hold my husband and children closer.