Learning from My Mother to Just Say Yes

Dorrit Corwin and her mother outside Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the author. 

On what would have been my grandfather Bruce’s 83rd birthday, my family gathered at his final resting place for the unveiling of his gravestone. Rabbi Laura Geller, a longtime family friend and fellow JWA board member, led the ceremony and invited us to share stories and blessings.

My mother, Kara Corwin, conveyed that even now, a year and a half after he died, she often wishes she could call her father-in-law for advice and encouragement in complicated situations. Two years ago, when the rabbi of our congregation approached her about joining the board, it was my grandfather who urged her to accept. Both relentlessly optimistic and generous “yes people,” my mom and grandpa have set examples as community pillars and benevolent leaders. It all starts with saying yes.

When she accepted the position two years ago, my mom became the first non-Jew ever to sit on the Temple Emanuel board, and possibly the first non-Jew to sit on any temple’s board in Los Angeles. Born to an Irish Catholic family in Connecticut, my mom agreed to raise her kids Jewish when she moved to LA and got to know my dad’s family. She felt an immediate connection to the traditions and became especially passionate about tikkun olam; giving back to others had always been central to her identity. She likes to say that Jews and Catholics have a lot more in common than you would think.

My mom never formally converted, but in my eyes, that never diminished her level of Jewish engagement. She hosted Shabbat dinners, attended High Holy Day services, and came up to the bimah for aliyot with my dad as my siblings and I chanted our Torah portions at our b’nai mitzvahs.

The type of contemporary Reform Judaism embraced in our interfaith household has not always been accepted by everyone in our larger Jewish communities. Rabbi Geller, the obvious first choice to officiate my parents’ wedding, declined the invitation. She shared with me that she didn’t feel comfortable leading the ceremony at their interfaith wedding in 1998, at which both a rabbi and a priest were present. But years later, she told me with pride that “watching your parents raise their three children to be authentically Jewish and involved in myriad Jewish causes and communities has radically altered my perspective on interfaith families.”

Rabbi Geller was the first female rabbi hired through a national search to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. She broke this glass ceiling at Temple Emanuel in 1994, also with the emphatic support of my cheerleader grandfather (and equally supportive grandmother). Watching my mom follow in Rabbi Geller’s footsteps as her own kind of changemaker at Temple Emanuel was a very full circle moment for my family. It was also a glowing example of the acceptance and diversity Temple Emanuel has always championed.

There are other Reform synagogues in LA that are quite visible in their activism and commitment to inclusivity, yet in some cases, their bylaws prevent non-Jews from joining their board. Once my mom broke this barrier at Emanuel, other peer synagogues began amending their rules.

After serving on the board for two years, murmurs about my mom becoming co-president of the board recently started echoing throughout the congregation. She was in her second year of an arduous full-time job as an entertainment lawyer and had more on her plate than ever before. And she no longer had my grandpa to call for the fortitude and reassurance that “yes” was the right decision to make.

She went around the room at a board meeting asking previous presidents why they'd accepted the position. “Bruce Corwin told me I had to step up,” said every single one of them. And so, channeling his boundless spirit, she knew she had to say yes.

When I asked her why she felt strongly about taking on the position right now, she told me that it’s partly because we have a new rabbi starting, and “it matters how things begin.” My mom has reiterated this mantra many times throughout my life—in the context of relationships and careers, especially.

She might be an unlikely candidate for this role, but she’s ready to guide the congregation as it embarks on this beautiful new beginning. At the cemetery on the day of my grandfather’s unveiling, she quipped, “A shiksa (a word my mom has reclaimed proudly) and a Persian (her co-president) walk into a temple…” We all laughed through our tears. Chills ran through my body as I realized that this is exactly the joke my grandfather would have made at this moment.

I ran my fingers over the glistening gold letters under the name on his gravestone that read, “eternal optimist adored by family and friends.” Though we all miss him dearly, I know he would have been touched by this magnificent illustration of l’dor va’dor—a bittersweet convergence of endings and beginnings.

As more milestones continue to take place without my grandpa here, we must hold each other accountable for the guidance he would have given each of us if we were able to pick up the phone and ask for it like we used to. I look to my mom to be that guiding light for me, as she already is for our family and for so many others. I look forward to watching my mom, our family, and the communities they’ve so deeply transformed continue to blossom. They will only continue to do so if more people adopt my mom and my grandpa’s altruistic and fearless mentality: just say yes.

 

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How to cite this page

Corwin, Dorrit. "Learning from My Mother to Just Say Yes." 13 July 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 20, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/learning-my-mother-and-grandfather-just-say-yes>.