By Val Langmuir
I am honored to be standing here today. I’m here to talk to you about my Jewish journey, how it led me to B’nai Emunah, and what this congregation means to me.
You wouldn’t know it to hear me speak, but I was born right here in the Bay Area. I moved to London as a child, where I picked up this accent, among other things. I lived in England for 28 years, and came back in 1996. I’m married to Marilyn. George Wertheim first invited me to services at B’nai Emunah a little over a year ago; and my family joined the congregation about six months ago.
I was raised as a secular Jew. My mother was born in Warsaw in 1931. She got out in 1939, along with her parents, just weeks ahead of the Nazi invasion. She brought me up with a strong Jewish identity – minus any religious practice. What is it to be a Jew without practice? As a child, I thought of being Jewish as a cultural identity, rather than anything to do with Judaism as a religion. Of course I knew it was one, but I learned that you don’t have to believe to be a Jew: you just automatically belong. Also, the other Jews I met didn’t go to synagogue either, so I didn’t know I was missing anything. From my mother I learned that being Jewish was sometimes dangerous; which is all the more reason to stand proud against all oppression. I also learned what a mensch was. And to always try to be one.
This might have been my whole story as a Jew, were it not for Marilyn, my wife. We met in 2001. That she was a “nice Jewish girl” was definitely a plus! Apparently, part of my Jewish upbringing involved learning I should seek a Jewish mate, and Marilyn was by no means the first Jewish woman I had dated; but she was the first who had any connection to what I now think of as Jewish life.
As we started to get more serious about each other, I started to experience more of Judaism. Marilyn is very serious about the commandment “v’shinantam l’vanecha – and teach it to your children”, and she has been actively doing that for their whole lives. And so I started learning right alongside them. Much of this happened at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, where Haley will become a bat mitzvah, this very month.
So here I am, for almost ten years going to a different shul, and we are still members over there as well as at B’nai Emunah. So why am I here, to tell you how great B’nai Emunah is? Let me just share a few anecdotes, starting with how I got connected to B’nai Emunah, and how I experienced it on my first arrival as a guest.
I was adopted at birth. At 50, I finally decided to try to find my birth parents. When I found my birth father, well, that was George Wertheim: amazingly, living less than 20 miles from my house. Was it beshert – fate – intended by G-d? Fast forward a few months. George was having a special birthday, and he invited me and Marilyn to services to share his simcha. Well, somehow we thought that services were at 10:15, and it was around 10:10 when we rolled up to B’nai Emunah. Entering the building, we could hear that services were already in progress. We were a bit embarrassed – Marilyn in particular hates to be late to anything. Luckily for us, as soon as we had walked in, April Lapidus found us, this pair of lost lesbians in the lobby. She greeted us warmly, found out we were here for the first time, showed us where everything was, put us at our ease, and made us feel welcome. This welcome continued all day, even before anyone knew we were associated with the wonderful and popular Wertheims.
In particular I was very touched by the warmth of the welcome. I don’t really pass as a “normal” woman: see my lovely skirt [note: I am wearing pants]; and even here in the Bay Area, I don’t expect everyone to be able to get past that. At B’nai Emunah there has never been any issue. I was accepted for who I was, and welcomed with open arms. I believe the friendliness, the warmth of the welcome I received, is at the very core of the culture of this congregation. Where does a culture come from? I think it is about both the people who make up a community and the people whom the community has chosen as its spiritual leaders.
Learning the Hebrew
When I started coming to BE, I didn’t know how to read Hebrew. I knew some of the prayers, but I had learned them phonetically. After being attracted to B’nai Emunah, and wanting to participate more, I found that I needed to learn the Alef Bet. Fortunately I quickly found a class. It helped a lot! Other reasons I love it here: B’nai Emunah provides many opportunities for learning and for worship in small groups which value active participation.
I also love that everybody who can, helps. The entryway, bimah, social hall, and library have all been renovated during the last few months. The place looks beautiful, doesn’t it? And it was all done and led by members of the congregation, family and friends.
In summary: B’nai Emunah is a very special community that has become a family to me in the last year. I am proud to stand here before you today as a new member. I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be right now than right here.
This is the time of t’shuvah, a time of turning, of new beginnings. I am thankful that I have experienced a new beginning to my Jewish life here at B’nai Emunah.
Gmar hatima tova / a good sealing and meaningful Yom Kippur to everyone.