When a Jew Celebrates large

The following message was sent to me via my monthly column, Mixed and Matched

My dad is Jewish, but my parents raised me with no religion at all. I’ve always been spiritually minded and wanted a connection to God. I found a rabbi who was very kind and sympathetic. I told her that I didn’t want to convert just to convert, I want to believe in what I’m getting into. The rabbi guided me to a yearlong class on Judaism and also met with me privately. When I felt I was ready, she took me to the mikvah. I’m still learning, and I so very much wish I had learned about Judaism growing up. Is there no way for interfaith couples to give their children a Jewish education without committing themselves to being Jewish? I would have loved to have grown up around other Jewish kids. It was hard to do this all by myself. — Jewish Now and Forever

I answered:

Dear Jewish Now and Forever: I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear of your kind and insightful rabbi! She is truly a blessing. I hope all rabbis will sit and listen to the adults from interfaith families, hear what they are seeking, teach them and help them find their own place.

To your question: Yes, there are ways for interfaith couples to give their children a Jewish education without deciding to practice Judaism. But I say this with caveats. Let’s begin with the “yes” part. Many synagogues allow members to enroll their children in Hebrew school while they are deciding what to do. Interfaith couples can meet with the rabbi and discuss their situation. Rabbis will not faint. They are used to the interfaith phenomenon. A local Orthodox rabbi told me that he believes that in order for a child to make a choice about which religion to choose, he or she must be knowledgeable about Judaism, which is a subordinate tradition in America.

Personally, I am one of many Jewish professionals who do not advocate a halfhearted attempt to send your child off to be educated without the parents doing anything themselves. This is disorienting for the child. So the “no” part would be that few rabbis are going to say, “Sure. Drop your child off and we’ll take care of everything. You just go shopping.” Couples are not surrendering their parental responsibilities.

Each synagogue has its own policies, so it is important to learn what they are. I have heard of some that give you a year to determine what you choose for your home. Others will educate a child right up until bar or bat mitzvah age and then ask the family to resolve the religious identity of the child.

Then there are the Jewish summer camps. Most of our local Jewish camps accept children of interfaith couples. At camp the child will have a fun, immersive Jewish experience and will learn Jewish songs, blessings, values and practices.

There are also Jewish community centers, which offer a wide array of Jewish activities and holiday celebrations, as well as preschool and summer programs for kids and families.

And let us not forget the many independent Jewish organizations that offer Jewish experiences. Locally there are organizations like Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, The Kitchen, Jewish Gateways, EcoJews of the Bay and Edah. A number of Jewish concierge programs have a professional who will help couples find the Jewish environment that works for them.

As you say, it would have been nice for you to have been around other Jewish kids. Children get a feeling of being “normal” when they have friends who celebrate the same holidays and are familiar with the same foods, music and cultural references. If an interfaith family is able to find another family, interfaith or Jewish, it is great for the children to have playmates who can share these ideas and experiences with them. Children like to be similar to their family and friends and they like having it pointed out. It gives them a sense of belonging. Children don’t have to be raised as Jews to understand elements of their Jewish heritage and enjoy being included.

Finally, I want to commend you on your personal tenacity. You found what you wanted and you worked hard to get it. You are a blessing to the Jewish people. Having lived on both sides of the Jewish identity, you have much to share.

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Shabbat Table3

In the June 2016 column of Mixed and Matched, I responded to a comment from a woman who had experienced what was described in the previous month’s column – having her Jewish authenticity questioned.

I can relate to your May 20 column “My father is Jewish and my mother is not.” My mother and I both had Conservative conversions when I was 9 years old. Still, all my life I’ve heard “You’re really not Jewish since your mother isn’t Jewish.”

I have always led a Jewish life. As an adult, I married and had children with a Muslim man, and both of my girls were raised Jewish. When I taught Hebrew school at my Reform synagogue, the director asked if I felt conflicted about the occupation of Gaza since my husband was Muslim. I told her that I felt conflicted because I am Jewish. She didn’t get it.

I have been divorced for over a decade. My daughters get comments all the time, saying “How strange to have a Jewish mother and a Muslim father.” Since my mother wasn’t born Jewish, I guess it makes my children not Jewish. We just keep living as Jews.
Oh well

***

Dear Oh well: Where to begin? I’m sorry that my column speaks to your life. I hope the day comes when this attitude goes the way of the woolly mammoth. You are a Jew, as is your mother, as are your daughters. Are there some who do not accept Conservative conversion? Yes. There are also people who are vegetarians and others who are carnivores. We are all free to believe what makes sense to us.

However, I find it disturbing that members of your synagogue, including the Hebrew school director, are so ill-informed about the Reform movement’s policies regarding both conversion and patrilineal descent. I am confident that your rabbis would not approve of these remarks. Sadly, many self-identified liberal Jews are not as open as they believe themselves to be.

In regard to the comment made to your daughters, many people are surprised that a Jew and Muslim would marry. But it does happen, even in Israel, and I wish others would stop feeling the need to say something about it. From what you tell me, your girls are happy as Jews and have been able to brush aside the questions and remarks. Good for them!

You raise the issue of “What is a Jewish name?” Two quick points on this challenging matter: Jews have all sorts of names in modern America; we are no longer just Goldsteins and Levines. And when you encounter a Jew whose last name shouts not Jewish, like Christensen or Church, that individual is likely the child of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother. This makes the individual halachically Jewish.

Many have said to me, “But I’m just curious, not malicious.” If you learned of a person whose child had died, would curiosity be a sufficient reason to ask the parent about the circumstances? No. Do not raise topics that are going to cause pain. If you are uncertain of whether a topic is appropriate, err on the side of kindness and don’t.

I brought your concerns to my friend and colleague at Lehrhaus Judaica, Reform Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, who reflected that Jewish tradition teaches the concept of tzniut, usually translated as modesty. He pointed out that it also means privacy and said all Jews could benefit from observing this mitzvah by respecting the privacy of others.

I would encourage you and your daughters to answer invasive questions this way: “I observe the mitzvah of tzniut, so I can’t respond to that.” If your inquisitor is baffled, suggest they query a rabbi who can explain more fully what this means.

I have no quarrel with traditionally observant Jews who believe that only a person born of a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox court is halachically Jewish. Within their community they should live and be well. They should also observe tzniut and refrain from talking about the identity of others.

For the rest of us, it’s important to examine our beliefs and be honest about what we think. Do we accept non-Orthodox conversions? Do we accept patrilineal descent? Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah.” It is hard to do, but we need to anyway.

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couple's shoes

In my May Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly I chose to address a question I hear regularly: “My father is Jewish and my mother is not. Where will I be accepted? Where can I go that they won’t quiz me?”

***

Ever since the Reform movement refined its views on so-called patrilineal Jews three decades ago, this has been a pervasive issue, in the liberal movements in particular — how do Jews with one Jewish parent fit into the community? Because Judaism traditionally is passed through the mother, the issue is particularly sharp for those with a Jewish father.

Not so, say many Reform Jews, who rush to tell me what patrilineal Jews should think or do. They say that people with a Jewish father shouldn’t care what others think; they should join a Reform or other non-halachic congregation. These individuals state adamantly and angrily that Jews who don’t accept patrilineal descent must change, must see the future and accept it or die out. They loudly support a person’s right to self-define and to choose how to be Jewish, except, of course, those Jews who choose to self-define and practice differently than they do. In other words: traditionally observant Jews. This derails the entire conversation, while ignoring the feelings of the patrilineals.

What have patrilineal Jews experienced? What do they want? Do they have a sense of what would reassure them? No one has asked about their feelings at all. How sad. We liberal Jews, and I include myself as a Reform affiliated Jew, need to stop lecturing and start listening, really listening — without judgment.

A number of patrilineal Jews have told me they chose to convert. Others told me, “I wish someone had offered to teach me, to guide me, to just tell me about conversion, just say it was an option.” Others have said that they went through a period of worry and reflection before deciding not to convert.

Yet, others have said that they have been hurt even in synagogues that purport to accept patrilineal Jews. “When I say I have one Jewish parent, people immediately ask me which one, and that makes it clear that it matters or they wouldn’t ask.” Several others said that Jews, affiliated and not, upon learning that the Jewish parent is their father, have said, “So you’re not really Jewish.” One individual who had chosen a Reform conversion because she’d been raised Christian had a fellow congregant say, “Wow, you’re so active, even though you’re not really Jewish.”

This Sunday I am moderating a conference in Oakland called “Growing Up Interfaith.” When I asked individuals who had shared their life stories with me to participate, one replied, “I don’t want to speak publicly, because members of my synagogue won’t think I’m really Jewish.”

On the other hand, one might think that at least the matrilineal Jews are fine; having a Jewish mother has given them clear passage into their Jewish identity. Sadly, that is not always the case. For some it’s been relatively easy. But for others, having a last name like Christianson or O’Malley has meant constant questioning.

And then there are ethnic and racial intermarriage issues. Between 15 and 20 percent of Bay Area Jewish families are multiracial. Many of them don’t “look Ashkenazi.” They too face constant questioning.

I’ve interviewed more than 50 adult children of intermarriage over the past four years. Many don’t know where to start the conversation. They talk about the barriers they face and try to sort out just where they want to engage. What would make them feel authentic? There is not one size fits all. Each person has to find his or her community. I encourage them to speak up and tell their rabbi the kinds of messages they are getting.

We can help. We can listen. We can show compassion and sympathy. We can ask how they want to handle their identity and how they want to engage. Then we need to speak up when fellow Jews are insulting — intentionally or unintentionally. Not with words of bitterness, but with calm, firm words that hold a mirror to the speaker. Let’s all become allies, no matter what Jewish movement we claim.

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child-baptism medium

A message from a young woman soon to be a mother sent to my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.

I was raised Catholic but no longer practice. I’m pregnant and happy to raise my children Jewish, and my husband and I belong to a Conservative synagogue. We plan to take our baby to the mikvah. My mom wants the baby to be baptized even though she knows we plan to raise our baby Jewish. Mom says it’s not that big a deal, and why can’t I just do it? Also, I don’t see myself as Jewish now, but what if at some point I do? — Anxious mom-to-be

Dear mom-to-be: If it really weren’t that big a deal, your mother could let go of it. Ask her to tell you why it matters to her.

If your mother fears that your child will not be saved, you should encourage her to speak to her priest, as the Catholic Church has been moving toward accepting the Jews as a covenantal people.

If she fears that Jews go to hell, let me offer a lovely paper written by the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. In “A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People,” the scholars ask whether God would revoke a promise and conclude that the answer is no. Therefore, they determine, the covenant between God and the Jews remains intact, valid and eternal. Because the Jews are in a “saving covenant with God,” it means they are not going to hell. You can find the paper online.

If your mother’s desire is more of a gut reaction because this is how she was raised and how she sees the world, you will need to address her claim that this isn’t a big deal. It is obviously one to her, and she needs to understand that it is also a big deal to you and your husband.

Baptism is the ritual that officially says a person has entered the body of the Catholic Church. It is the wrong ritual for a child who will grow up as a member of the Jewish people.

Try to help your mom see that baptism, circumcision, receiving a Hebrew name and other religious acts performed to welcome a baby are in fact very important. The rituals that parents choose are a declaration of who their child is and the foundation of the child’s religious identity. Birth rituals affirm a baby’s entrance into a spiritual community. In return, that community accepts the responsibility of caring for the child.

Here’s another way to think about it: Is this ritual important enough to take pictures? Typically people have photos of their babies and family at christenings, brises, baptisms and namings. These photos are shown to children as they get older and explained as important moments in their lives. The pictures we use to fill our photo albums or display in our homes reveal what we value. Doing both ceremonies reduces the status of each. Hopefully your mother can see that for your child’s sake, one message is easier.

If she is worried that her grandchild will not understand her and her religion and therefore will not be close to her, please reassure her that this is not the case. Children naturally attach to grandparents based on love. Also, her grandchild will be raised in America, where Christianity is the dominant religion; there is no way the child will not come to know about it.

Additionally, this is a good time to discuss with your husband which holidays your family will share with your parents. I encourage you to include them in all of your Jewish celebrations and to identify elements from their tradition that will be shared with your child.

Finally, you mention that you might someday want to be Jewish. Indeed, that may happen. Have you given your mom subtle messages about this? Could her fear be more about losing you? If so, lavish some extra time on your mother.

If you are simply acknowledging that anything can happen — I say, time will tell. If someday you want to be Jewish, discuss this with your rabbi and other Jews by choice. Those who have chosen this path can help you figure out how and what to say to your mother.

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In her own words

One of the speakers at this Sunday’s Growing Up Interfaith Conference is Zoe Francesca. Zoe agreed to write an op-ed for the Jweekly. Here is her beautiful, heartfelt article.

I’m looking forward to the “Growing Up Interfaith” conference coming up this weekend in Oakland. It’s still a bit uncomfortable to reveal that I am a so-called patrilineal Jew, but maybe it’s time for more of us to come out. I’m turning 50 this year, and it took about 40 years for me to comfortably identify as Jewish. I know what it means to wander the desert for 40 years.

First came the half-and-half identity: half-Jewish on my father’s side, half-ex-Catholic on my mother’s side. But this, I was told by my peers, meant I was really nothing, because Judaism holds that the mother must be Jewish. (I was also repeatedly told that Hitler would have killed me anyway, an interesting, but not unheard of, way to be included.) My parents were fine with nothing because they had both decided to reject religion in light of the fact that “there is no God,” and “religion is the root cause of all wars” — and probably some other factors. My grandparents on both sides wished their son and daughter had married in, not out — causing another type of war.
But I wasn’t OK with nothing. I wanted to be something. I was a spiritual soul. I reached out again and again. My greatest sorrow and stumbling block to joining a church or synagogue service was that I didn’t know what to do in those services.
One time, my mother agreed to let me accompany a classmate to religious school. It happened to be near Rosh Hashanah, and the teacher was comparing the Jewish New Year to the Christian one. “The difference is,” he said, “the Christians have a party and get drunk on New Year’s Eve. We Jews fast and ask forgiveness for our mistakes.” It made me feel like if I chose Judaism, it would be tantamount to denigrating my Christian heritage. I never wanted to disparage my mother’s cultural gifts that way. I didn’t want to be a football between two religions, the same way children of divorce don’t want to be a football between their two parents. I didn’t go back to the religious school.
Each time I made a tentative step toward Judaism, I was told by various Israelis, rabbis and Jewish teachers that I wasn’t Jewish.
I sat before them, asking to be validated and accepted as a Jew-in-training. Why didn’t those rabbis and teachers explain the semantics to me? Offer conversion? Discuss halachah? Explain my options? I’ll never know. Each time, I walked away feeling rejected.
My mother taught me that churches could be sanctuaries of peace and beauty — though she never brought me to a church service, she sometimes brought me to sit in empty churches when no one was there — and that Christmas could be the same. My Jewish grandmother taught me that Israel was a place of profound hope for the Jewish people, and she nurtured my Jewish soul with her food, her Yiddish expressions and her humor. I could have gone either way, but I fell in love with the Hebrew language, the land of Israel/Palestine, and I even lived in Israel for a while.
I joined first one synagogue and then another. And still I would go to the rabbis and teachers with the speech about “Am I Jewish?” Then, finally, on my 35th birthday, I gave myself permission to start practicing Judaism as a religion. Soon afterward, my husband and I decided to raise our newborn children Jewish. After 35 years on this earth, I decided that I was a Jew, and that was that. Even if you still think I’m not really Jewish, I do.
Please don’t let my story scare you away from marrying a non-Jewish person that you love. Don’t let it stop you from giving your children your blessing if they marry a non-Jew. Instead, embrace patrilineal Jews and anyone who comes to you asking, “Can I join your tribe?” Find out what to do in a synagogue, and make sure your children know what to do. If your children ask for a spiritual education, please give it to them. It will save them from wandering in the desert for too many years.

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Marty-Ross-199x300

My parents (especially my mother) thought it important to raise me as a member of “the human religion.” The mantra: “I am not a this or a that – I am a human” rings as a distant memory in my ears when recalling that fundamental message.

I think my father, a child prodigy violinist raised in a first-generation immigrant Jewish home, came to view Judaism as a narrow-minded and limited world view. He would hold up his hands to the sides of his head when describing how their Judaism was worn by his parents like “blinders on a horse.”

My mother, raised as a southern Baptist during the depression, developed an early disgust for the bigotry, prejudice and negativism she observed in her environment and in her church. She often recalled her distress witnessing unfair actions against neighbors of color, of “fire and brimstone” sermons and of the shaming and humiliation of church congregants – with the preacher banging a loud gavel while admonishing: “you sinners, you’re going to hell!”

With the benefit of 9 years of parental experience considering the question of what religious upbringing or exposure they want for their kids prior to my arrival, my parents basically decided they would let nature take its course with me – to not try to provide me any specific religious exposure or training as they had done with my older siblings. An interesting side note is that neither of my siblings has chosen the “Jewish” path, as I have.

I’ve always embraced my parents’ humanistic view pretty deeply, but I also envied that sense of “belonging” and “rooted-ness” I perceived my Jewish friends as having. That feeling grew, and upon entering college I joined a Jewish fraternity, developed an interest in Zionism, enrolled in some courses in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCLA and the University of Judaism (including a Reconstructionist conversion program there that I did not go through with), and generally began to surround myself in a Jewish environment.

Several years later, I made good on a suggestion I saw on the cover of my fraternity’s newsletter, which read: “if you’ve been waiting for an invitation to visit Israel, you’ve got it!”, and signed up for the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) – a year abroad program in the Negev desert. I loved it so much that I stayed another 7 years in Israel, working in my field (software development)! While there, I met someone who told me about a cheap way to learn about Judaism more deeply, sponsored by the rabbinate: the conversion program. I entered it, specifically not committing to convert, although at the end it felt like the right thing to do, so I moved through it becoming officially Jewish.

Upon returning to the United States, it’s been a struggle for me to find a comfortable convergence of religious practices. I currently hold my “Jewish training” a bit – as my father said – limiting in its proscriptions, although I struggle with it as defining my Jewish identity and understanding. I haven’t lived according to the orthodox interpretations of Halacha for many years now, yet still struggle with a dissonance – of a feeling that the “authenticity” of my Jewish-ness is brought into question, given the tenants of my conversion. Also, I do believe deep down to some extent that “it’s the traditions (law?) which have (has) kept the Jewish people”, which makes me feel a bit of a hypocrite. One thing I’m very happy about and comfortable with is that I have given myself enough of a context to help give my kids a decent chance at feeling a “belonging” and a “rooted-ness” that I never had.

Together with my loving and supportive wife Renee (who grew up in a reform Jewish environment), and with the help of our affiliation and participation in our Conservative synagogue (Netivot Shalom) and a Jewish after-school program named Edah, we are helping to keep the metaphorical leaf from my father’s ancestral branch of the Hebrew tree from falling off.

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Crowned Shin from TS Torah

There are so many nuances to the concerns that patrilineal Jews have. It is VITAL that we listen to them and not get stuck in our own opinion. After receiving four different messages on this topic I merged them into a single letter for my Mixed and Matched column.

I have a Jewish father and non-Jewish mom. I was raised with some Jewish activities at home and when I got into college, I began to explore Judaism. By the time I was 27, I decided to convert. I found a Conservative congregation and converted with the rabbi. A couple of years later when I wanted to go to Israel, someone pointed out that Orthodox Jews wouldn’t consider me Jewish. I went back to my rabbi and asked him about this. He said, “Yes, that’s true. But what do you care what those people think?” I wanted to curse him with unprintable words about his “born-Jewish privilege!” How dare he be so cavalier about my feelings and my identity! I left his synagogue and am now going to an Orthodox shul and converting there. There should be full disclosure by rabbis and someone should tell them to stop leaning on their blind privilege. I’m really angry about this. — Could Have Used an Honest Rabbi

My answer was:

Dear Could Have Used: I can hear the anger in your statement. I am so sorry. I know that anger is one of the ways we react to pain. Clearly, this rabbi hurt you deeply.

Of course, you are right. Yes, every rabbi should clearly articulate the huge range of Jewish views and spell out who will accept what when it comes to conversion. I am surprised that your rabbi failed to do so. I am not minimizing your experience, but I want you to know that you are not alone. There are Orthodox Jews who aren’t accepted by other Orthodox Jews.

Second, you are so right, there is born-Jewish privilege and those who have it are often oblivious to how it serves them. Your Conservative rabbi may not be accepted as a rabbi by Orthodox rabbis, but he will certainly be accepted as a Jew. He doesn’t have to study or go before a beit din or go to the mikvah. He was born into that identity and it is his for life.

He can chose to walk away from it, change his name and become a Catholic priest, but the moment he returns to a synagogue, he’s in. Some would roll their eyes, but once a Jew, always a Jew, no matter how they behave.

I venture to say that part of the rabbi’s curt response was not about you; it was about him. He was quick to dismiss what “they” think because from an Orthodox perspective, it is his conversion work that is unacceptable. As you see now, the Orthodox are happy to convert you, using a process that they find kosher, i.e., acceptable and authentic. Sadly, many people are too focused on themselves to get their own ego out of the way in order to listen to the pain being expressed by another. It is also possible that the Conservative rabbi has a twinge of guilt for failing to fully inform you, and he was hastening to cover his embarrassment.

Finally, my friend, there is simply too little information available about conversion — whether for those with Jewish heritage or those with none. I hope that as more adults with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother seek conversion, the Jewish community will take on the responsibility of providing complete information, making it easily accessible. In doing so, everyone will profit.

Remember that your voice and your experience are important and need to be shared. I can assure you that you are making yourself part of the solution to a challenge that faces the entire Jewish community. You are to be commended for that. Should you want to speak about this publicly, please let me know. I am currently planning a half-day conference for May 22 titled “Growing Up Interfaith.” Your thoughts are welcome.

You can read comments from readers of the J here.

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kippot

A worried Jewish father with a non-Jewish wife wrote to me about the take his college age daughters had towards New York Jewish “culture”. I answered him in my Mixed and Matched column.

I’m Jewish, my wife is not. Our two daughters, who have been to Israel, were raised Jewish with all the Jewish lifecycle events. They have left California for college in New York. There they encountered New York Jews and have found them to be “awful.” Now they repeat numerous negative stereotypes about Jews. One is happy to “pass” and the other wants to identify as “half and half.” They say Bay Area Jews are different and they still like all the people at our home synagogue. Their mom, who learned Hebrew, drove to religious school, hosted Seders, sees this as amusing. I’m worried they won’t date Jewish men. What can I do? — Sad Dad

Dear Sad Dad: I’m so sorry this has hit you so suddenly and so hard. Your girls are experiencing a new part of the Jewish world that may be strange to them. They would be equally surprised by the differences between their Bay Area experience and the Jews of Mexico City, Paris or Morocco. But since the Jews of New York are American, they expected to feel a sense of familiarity. Additionally, they are in school with Jewish peers, who bring their own culture of origin with them to college. I suggest you do three things:

• Talk with your wife. Why is she amused? Does she perhaps have some insight into your daughters? Does she see this as a time of exploration, but feels confident of the girls’ Jewish identity? Can she comfort or reassure you?

• Talk to your rabbi, who may reassure you with stories about other young members and their parents who passed through this and now have a next-generation Jewish family.

• Talk to your girls. It is important that they not harbor stereotypes and prejudices toward any group, including Jews.

Begin by asking your girls why they say these things. Are there events that have caused them to respond with these negative thoughts? Have people been cruel to them? Do they feel defensive with other Jews? If they feel embarrassed to be identified as Jews, what caused that? You need to get to the heart of this. It would be best if your wife could join you in this conversation. It is possible that they have encountered some nasty people who happen to be Jews and in the college social group, they don’t want to be associated with them.

How do the girls define the difference between good Bay Area Jews and the bad New York Jews? Do they feel positively about Israeli Jews? Can they see the difference between Israeli culture and Bay Area Jewish culture? Can they see that every Jewish group or community may be unique? Would they be open to dating an Ethiopian Jew? Or an Italian Jew? Is it just New York Jews that they find distasteful? It may be that you and they simply need to clarify what it is that they are rejecting.

Have you told them that you wanted them to date Jewish guys? If this is the first they are hearing of it, expect some pushback. They may be surprised for many reasons, the first that since you married their non-Jewish mother, they may take your message as an insult to her. Be ready to explain exactly why you want them to date, and I’m assuming marry, a Jew. They may feel that it can work out equally well for them in an interfaith couple, as it did for you. You need to have a sound reason that doesn’t insult their mom.

I know an interfaith couple, a Jewish dad and non-Jewish mom who, upon hearing that their son was engaged to a non-Jewish girl, sat them down and had a heartfelt talk about the challenges of interfaith marriage and raising Jewish children in an interfaith home. I was told this story by the non-Jewish fiancée, who thought her in-laws’ frank sharing was wonderful. The goal here is to assess with your wife what you want for your girls. Do you want them to raise Jewish kids, but your wife doesn’t care? Get that out in the open. Your daughters can sense what you each want, and being honest is best. From there, you and their mom can explain why you each feel as you do, and the girls can feel respected. You’re welcome to contact me if you need help with the conversation.

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On the entrance to a Jewish home

On the entrance to a Jewish home

A young Chinese Jew sent the following letter to my Mixed and Matched column –

My dad is Chinese, not Jewish; my mom is white and Jewish. They raised me Jewish. My last name and my looks are Chinese. In my home congregation, no one pays any attention to my mixed race, but in other Jewish environments Jews always remark on it. “So, how did you get to be Jewish?” “Are you here to convert?” “What’s your Hebrew name?” I am so sick of it that I pretty much don’t go to synagogue unless I’m home with my folks. What can I say to people so they will shut up? How can I go to a synagogue and like it if I’m always put off by my first encounters? — Jewish and Chinese, So Get Over It!

My answer:

Dear Get Over It: I hear you. Let me begin by saying you are not alone. A recent study of the Bay Area Jewish community estimated that 20 percent of Jewish families are multiracial. Unfortunately, most American white Jews think that all Jews are white. Jews of color echo your experience in my conversations with them. Interestingly enough, even white Jews in multiracial families often feel their family members are the only Jews of color.

I have asked rabbis from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox shuls, “Is there ever a need for one of your members to ask a stranger, are you Jewish?” They all said, “No, never.” So we’ve established that this is not a question of necessity but one of crude curiosity.

What to say? I’m betting that in different environments you may want to handle this differently, so I’m going to give you a few options.

One response that fits just about any occasion is, “Why do you ask?” If their reply is, “Well, you don’t look Jewish,” You can say, “What do Jews look like to you?” At this point either they realize how rude they are being and bumble off, or you can simply turn away and go get a glass of water, speak to someone else or move across the room.

To the question, “Are you Jewish?” you can respond, “Are you Jewish?” When they answer, “Yes!” You can say, “Oh, I’m surprised. I guess you didn’t learn that that question is forbidden 36 times in the Talmud.”

To the question, “What’s your Hebrew name?” you can say, “Are you planning to say a Mishebeirach [prayer of healing] for me? No? Then you don’t need it.”

My own rabbi is part of a large multiracial Jewish family. Her brilliant father taught her and her siblings that they didn’t owe anyone an answer. It is just fine to turn and walk away. In other words, someone else’s curiosity is not your problem.

What to do about finding a synagogue? Don’t let people you don’t know determine your life path! You need to find a synagogue that you like. If you were raised Reform, consider your local Reform shuls; if Conservative, go there, etc. Most likely there will be members who are Jews of color. Meet with the rabbi and share your experiences. If he or she does not assure you that such behavior is not tolerated at that shul, move on. Your rabbi should be your advocate. Connect with other Jews of color so you don’t feel alone or singled out. Then get to know the members. Once you are familiar with them and they with you, it will begin to feel like home.

You’re not in this alone. You reached out to me, and I’m going to help you make the Bay Area home. Consider connecting with Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based advocacy group for Jews of color, if you’d like to be an advocate. Or you can simply be a member of a shul if that’s what you want. This is about your choices.

Last year my African American, born-Jewish niece was giving a talk at her East Bay shul. Her rabbi, who has always been her cheerleader, noticed that some of the adult members were being less than sensitive. Her rabbi asked his 12-year-old son, “What do you think when you see a person of color in our shul?” His son replied, “I figure they must be Jewish. People who aren’t Jewish don’t usually go into a synagogue.” There is the logic of the next generation. If you’re here, you must belong here. As this next generation grows into leadership, not only will many of the leaders be multiracial Jews, the white ones just won’t care what color anyone is.

You can see readers comments to the letter on the J-weekly page that carries my column.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Mixed & Matched
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Gold star on Genesis text

In a conversation with a young person who is Asian and Jewish (yes, halachically Jewish, as in has a Jewish mother) I asked, “Are you comfortable in a synagogue?” The answer was, no, so I asked why. The answer:

1. I didn’t get much Jewish education so I don’t really know what’s going on in a service. It’s not familiar to me.
2. No one looks like me (biracial). I’m an outsider.
3. I don’t go to shul so I am literally a stranger. People looking at me might be thinking who is he or they could be thinking, he’s Asian, why is he even here.
4. I’m a secular Jew and going to synagogue is a religious thing. I feel intrinsically that these are my people but I don’t feel comfortable with all this religion.

How can we, as a community, alter this situation?

1. Publicize services that are less formal – musical services, children’s services, learner’s services. These allow adults to come in with no knowledge and just enjoy.

2. We should hold as an ongoing goal to have a more racially diverse synagogue environment – one that matches the demographics of our larger community. How do we get Jews of color to come in our doors? This one is tough. The best way I’ve found to do this is to face it head on and offer not just one, but several programs about Jews of color. A discussion, a lecture, a film – all should be promoted to the community at large. Jews of color are typically not getting the “usual” Jewish media. To promote our What Color Are Jews? program we took out ads on BART. We treated this as a mainstream topic. Which it is.

3. As a member of a synagogue, just assume that everyone who comes in belongs there. It’s no skin off your nose if you treat someone well who turns out to be a non-Jew, a non-member, a curious Christian visiting. But don’t over do it. Smile, say “Shabbat Shalom” and move on.

4. Publicize the non-religious activities of your synagogue as strenuously as the religious ones. Do you take out an ad to announce your High Holy Day services? Consider taking out an ad to announce a class, lecture, or musical performance at your shul. Make sure you have events that someone brand new to the environment can join in without worrying that there will be prayers or Hebrew that is unfamiliar. Remember that a synagogue is “a house of prayer, a house of study and a house of assembly.” Assemble for a wine tasting, bagel bake off, a film, a book discussion and invite the community.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words, Jews of Color
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