Facing the Holidays Without a Mate

Since losing her husband unexpectedly two years ago, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been painful for Liz Safirstein Leshin, 42.

“For me, the High Holidays and a lot of things like birthdays are very fraught,” the Westside resident said. “I haven’t been able to feel enthusiastic about much of anything spiritual.”

While she is more open to attending services this year, finding a temple where she is comfortable as a single person has been challenging. While she feels alone in larger congregations that contain mostly couples and families, she finds the prospect of attending services with all singles depressing.

“I have spent a lot of my time in L.A. looking for a community that is right for me,” the writer-development director said. “I’m still searching.”

Widowers, the divorced, single parents and unmarried Jews often feel alienated during the High Holidays — a time when most synagogues cater to “intact” families. Perry Netter, associate rabbi of Temple Beth Am, who is divorced, still remembers the year he innocently asked families in the congregation to stand under the tallit of a nearby family member.

“A single woman left the synagogue crying,” the rabbi recalled. “She said it was all she could do to go to synagogue on High Holidays because she feels alone. And then all around her there are families and that’s the one thing she doesn’t have in her life.”

Netter often wonders whether his temple has so many intact families because that group is most interested in services or if the shul unknowingly alienates unconventional families.

“My fear is that it’s both,” Netter said.

Whatever the case, many singles and non-nuclear families around the Southland struggle with “fitting in” during the holidays.

Aram Kadish, 40 and single, noticed a change in High Holiday experience when a number of his Jewish friends got married.

“I had [gone to services] in the past with friends when more of them were single,” said the West L.A. resident who, like many singles, is an East Coast transplant. “So now I go alone, but I don’t feel overly accepted.”

Joyce Stein, 40, a Brentwood financial adviser, faces the same dilemma.

“I’m from Atlanta and [going to shul creates] a little more of a lonely feeling because you’re dealing with singlehood. With your family being in a different city, you feel isolated.”

For several years, Stein attended High Holidays services at Shofar Synagogue, a Beverly Hills-based organization.

“I liked Shofar because there’s a lightness that goes along with the seriousness of the holiday,” she said. “There’s something about the rabbi that makes everyone feel very comfortable. I didn’t feel sad.”

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of the Chai Center, a nonprofit organization, also uses humor to draw in his niche crowd of nonaffiliated Jews and singles.

“I do seven hours of stand-up and then we eat,” the rabbi joked. “You’ve got to make it fun.”

While laughter can certainly help ease the pain, some singles and divorce├ęs feel that the passage of time eases loneliness.

“I’ve been divorced for a long time and so I’m just used to going [to shul] on my own,” said Eleanore Hayn, 48. “When I was first single I was more self-conscious and I had more feelings of deficiency, which I don’t have anymore and as a result, it’s not hard for me it all.”

The Santa Monica therapist said that meeting other divorced folks has made her more comfortable in synagogue.

“Just knowing that there are others who have the same issues as you helps so that when you go out in the world, you don’t feel like a freak,” Hayn said.

But celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not a struggle for every nonconventional family. A Los Angeles single mother of seven, who asked not to be named, said that the holidays are happier for her and her children since she divorced four years ago. “

When [my ex-husband] was with us, the holidays were very grim because he was so difficult,” she recalled. “It’s much easier to have the holidays without him because we can express our joy.”

In addition, the Los Angeles professional feels she has found an extended family within her shul.

“I’ve chosen to go to synagogue where the rabbi knows my children and on the holidays he acts in loco parentis,” she said. “Many of the men in the synagogue will act that way as well, so my children do not feel left out.”

As for those who do have difficulties connecting during the holidays, the single mother said it’s all about attitude.

“If you want to walk around seeing yourself as missing something, you’ll walk around with a limp. It’s a bad time to think about what you don’t have,” said the determined parent, “and a good time to think of what you do have.”