Sarah Richards and her spouse, Erev, recently moved to Massachusetts after living for several years in different Southern cities, including Atlanta, Athens, Ga., and Louisville. For Sarah, she was returning to her roots, having grown up in this area. In this interview, Sarah shares with JFN her perspective on Jewish life in the South, and how her work with interfaith families has grown out of her own life experiences. Sarah and Erev live in Marlborough with their two children, Alathea (“Thea”), who is 5, and Zevi, who is 2.
You grew up in this area, but you’ve lived in different parts of the South, most recently Louisville. Was there an active Jewish community in the different places you lived?
In Atlanta, where I lived for five years, there are large and small congregations from all the major Jewish movements as well as unaffiliated synagogues. … Athens, Ga., where I lived for five years, also has a notable Jewish population. Athens is a much smaller city, but a large percentage of the professionals there work in academics and medicine, so I think that has increased the number of Jewish families who live and work there. And of course, the University of Georgia is a great state school, so it attracts Jewish students from across Georgia and beyond. …
There are a lot of Jews in Athens, and perhaps many other small Southern cities, who are sort of floating in and out of Jewish life. This was similar to what we experienced in Louisville, Ky., where we lived most recently for a year. Louisville is a huge city, much bigger than most people realize, and it also has a lot of jobs in the academic and medical sectors. There has been a significant Jewish presence there for more than a century, and that was bolstered by a wave of Russian Jewish immigrants (all of the signs at the JCC are in both English and Russian), but in recent years it has declined. Membership at most of the Louisville synagogues has taken a hit. … The community is struggling to get more Jews in the area to become actively involved in Jewish life.
So there is a wide variety of Jewish communities in Southern cities. For the most part, they encounter the same issues that come up in the Northeast. But sometimes, when Southern Jewish communities are more isolated, the effects of assimilation can be more pronounced.
Your spouse converted to Judaism before you married. What led her to this decision? Was it something the two of you arrived at together, or was it a decision that came completely from her?
My spouse’s conversion was a mutual decision of sorts, because I had made it clear from the start that I envisioned a Jewish family and was considering rabbinical school. But of course she had to be totally comfortable with it, or it wouldn’t have worked. As it turned out, Erev had already explored Judaism some on her own and was drawn to certain aspects. We also have the unusual distinction of being married twice! We had a Jewish ceremony one year to the day after we met face-to-face. Rabbi Debra Hachen, who had been the rabbi at B’nai Shalom in Westborough during my entire childhood, flew down to Georgia to do it. That helped to make it a really special occasion. Then we ended up living in Northborough briefly during 2004 when same-sex marriage was legalized here. So Rabbi Hachen came to our house and married us again, this time with civil documents, among a small gathering of family and friends.
Moving back here from Louisville was a sort of homecoming. Had you always wanted to return to Massachusetts, or was it just a matter of circumstance?
We tried for several years to return here because my spouse does clinical research for the pharma and biotech industries. When the economy took a downturn, there were fewer consulting contracts that she could do from anywhere in the country, so it was time to look for an employee position. Plus, we have my family close by. It was a difficult choice because we loved our community in Athens, and my in-laws are there. The truth is we would have been just as happy to stay there as to return, but the job-stability issue tipped the scale in favor of the Northeast.
Much of the work you do is with interfaith families. How did this become a passion of yours, and what sort of work is it?
Working with interfaith families is a perfect blending of my academic interests, my teaching experience, my spiritual calling, and my own family background. I grew up in a family that started as an interfaith marriage. When I was 5 years old, my formerly Catholic mother chose to convert to Judaism. Now I am raising two kids with a spouse who converted. The thing about parents who convert is that they really need a lot of the same support that non-Jewish parents raising Jewish kids need, but they don’t often get it. One year of study with a rabbi is not enough to replace all of the cultural knowledge that happens over a lifetime of living in a Jewish household. For example, when I was a kid, I thought my mother was “really Jewish” because she sang in our Reform synagogue choir and baked great challah. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how little I knew compared to people who were raised in more traditional Jewish households.
Now, I’m not knocking converts or Reform synagogues; both are vital to Jewish life in this country. But some of the flavor of Jewish life has been lost as traditions have been forgotten, and people are less likely to find meaning in their Judaism and stick with it over a lifetime if it lacks flavor. So I like to help those in interfaith families find that special Jewish “spark” that works for them while maintaining important family connections and traditions from both sides. And I count families where one or both parents have converted as a kind of interfaith family because there are still grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins inviting you to celebrate their holidays with them. Just because you convert doesn’t mean your religious upbringing suddenly becomes irrelevant.
My master’s thesis studied the way that holidays shape our views of time and community. Of course, holiday seasons are when interfaith families experience the most stress. The divorce rate is even higher with interfaith couples than it is with couples from the same religious background. And children form many of their memories about family and spirituality during holiday time, so it is really important to remove the stress and have meaningful holiday celebrations.
My work is never about telling people they should be more Jewish. It is about helping them be as Jewish as they want to be without feeling like there is no community for them, no support, and no way to include a non-Jewish parent without confusing the children. The people I’ve worked with have been so grateful to learn tools and strategies to survive holiday time without guilt and stress, and that really makes the work worthwhile.
What do you hope to find for you and your family in your new community?
What I hope to find for my family is a long-term community of Jewish friends to share memories with. When my children grow up, I want them to be able to think back on their Jewish upbringing with a positive gut feeling. I want them to have a sense of the inherent value of traditions, and to be able to carry that sense with them into their adult life. That way, whatever traditions they choose to pass on to their children will carry that spark of meaning.