Rabbi Larry Milder

Rabbi Larry Milder

Another good email from Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton.

Are You a Person of Color? We Welcome You!
Here’s the punch line that doesn’t work anymore:
“Funny, you don’t look Jewish!”

There’s no such thing as looking Jewish, and there probably never was, unless you go back to the very origins of the Jewish people. Maybe, just maybe, when we were a collection of related tribes, we shared some ethnic characteristics. But not for long.
Moses? Married a Cushite (i.e. Ethiopian) woman.

The woman in Song of Songs says, “I am dark and beautiful.”

Jews of Mumbai look Indian. Jews from Kurdistan look Kurdish. And the Jews of Kaifeng, when there was still a pre-modern Jewish community there, looked Chinese.

Indeed, if you want to see a really diverse country, with more ethnic diversity than almost any other country, just go to Israel. It’s the Jews who are diverse!

Of course, there is a history to the idea of Jews looking a certain way, but it is a history told from a very particular point of view.

Most American Jews trace their lineage to Eastern Europe. They are not just Ashkenazic, they are Eastern European Ashkenazic, with a very large proportion of Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Rumanian and other Eastern bloc backgrounds. Until World War II, American Jewry was so overwhelmingly from these communities, that it seemed as though that’s who and what Jews were. Bagel-eating, Yiddish inflected children of immigrants with a New York sense of irony.

It’s not a bad heritage. I’m particularly proud of mine, and the journey that my family made.

But that is only part of the story, and a decreasingly accurate portrait of American Jews, let alone Jews world-wide.

We are Jews of all colors. Jews who came from lands outside of Eastern Europe, including Africa and Asia. Jews of different backgrounds who converted into Judaism. Jews who were adopted from many countries. Jews who are the children of diverse parents of different cultures.

The truth is, making jokes about people’s backgrounds, as though there were something funny about a Jew who doesn’t fit a certain stereotype, just isn’t that funny. It’s not “cute.”

As far as I am concerned, the more diverse we are as a congregation, the more “Jewish” we look. Not because anyone can look Jewish anymore. But rather, because diversity, inclusion of Jews of color, is a goal toward which we should aspire. That’s being made in God’s image!

Posted by admin under Finding a Synagogue, Jews of Color, Synagogues
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Kim Carter Martinez is born Jewish and is tired of the questions: How did you get to be Jewish? OR How long have you been Jewish? She said, “I feel like saying, I got to be Jewish through my mother’s vagina.”

I told her to go ahead and say that. People won’t forget.

Kim in her own words.

Kim at a Tour de Cure event (2)

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

Another question from my Mixed and Matched column in the J-Weekly.

I’m a 26-year-old Conservative Jew and celebrate the major Jewish holidays, although I’m not terribly religious. I’ve been dating a Korean girl who is Catholic but also not very religious. We are getting serious and I’m scared. I do love her, she’s my best friend, and I think about what would happen if we got married. She is open to raising our kids Jewish but still would want to celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter. I think this would cause identity issues for our kids, and obviously they won’t look Jewish. Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s possible to successfully raise mixed children with a Jewish father and Asian mother without the children feeling confused or left out? — Uncertain

Dear Uncertain: You are asking the right questions, and answering them will clarify your options. There are two primary concerns: your kids being multiracial (can Jews be Asian?) and your home being interfaith (can we do two sets of holidays and have the kids feel Jewish?).

You are correct that a biracial child is more likely to be “questioned” about his or her Jewish identity. Don’t let starry-eyed liberals tell you that race doesn’t matter. Young biracial Jews report that it is harder when their parents don’t address racial assumptions about “what does a Jew look like” and racism in general. You can build your children’s confidence by making sure they have a Jewish community — typically a synagogue — that doesn’t just accepts them, but affirms their Jewish identity. There are many such children; I suggest you pick a synagogue that has a noticeable multiracial membership.

A biracial or multiracial child in an interfaith family faces additional concerns. First is the American assumption that Asians can’t be Jewish. Many only consider someone to be Jewish if he or she has a Jewish mother. A young biracial woman whose mother is Jewish and father is Vietnamese told me, “I can’t get the words ‘My mom is Jewish’ out of my mouth fast enough.”

In the eyes of the Conservative movement, your children would not be considered Jewish unless you convert them. Typically, a Conservative Jewish man in your situation takes his infants to the mikvah for conversion. This is something you should think about and discuss with your sweetheart. For some young people, knowing that they were taken to the mikvah is tremendously important. They tell me, “My parents made sure I went to the mikvah. I’m Jewish and have been since before I have any memory.”

Otherwise, I suggest you go to a Reform congregation where they accept patrilineal children as Jewish. But be aware that even if your children are raised Jewish, they will still come into contact with people who do not accept patrilineal descent, and you must be prepared to deal with that in a calm and supportive manner.

Before you go any further, you need to have a discussion about what is involved in raising children as Jews. You are right that a number of Jewish kids who grow up with Christian holidays often feel a sense of dual loyalty. The truth is that this is a compromise, and it does affect the children. This isn’t to say they don’t end up Jewish. But it means you have to be sensitive to how they are taking it in. If you do decide to celebrate Christian holidays, decide in advance which ones and how your partner wants to observe them. Then be sure that you are truly “doing Jewish” the rest of the year.

Ask yourself how important it is that your children self-identify as Jewish. If it is extremely important, then ask your sweetheart if she is willing to have a dialogue about what that would involve. Chances are she has no idea and you have only a sketchy one. She must be given the opportunity to find out what she is getting into before marriage.

No one can promise that your children will be Jewish if you marry a non-Jew. But no one can promise that you will ever feel this strongly about another woman. I would highly recommend that the two of you go to a couples discussion group to sort things out. You’ll get a chance to hear from other interfaith couples and make your decision together. If you can’t get to a group then consider doing individual sessions with me to assess where you and your girlfriend agree and disagree. (I often do these via Skype so you will be in the comfort of your own home.)

You can read the original letter with readers’ responses here.

Posted by admin under Children, In the News, Jews of Color, Mixed & Matched, Parenting
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Henry Robinson age 6 mo

March 2014 column of Mixed and Matched in the J-Weekly

The question:

I am Jewish and my husband is not. We adopted a girl, 8 months old, whose birth mother is not Jewish. We belong to a Reform synagogue and our rabbi said if we raise our daughter with Jewish lifecycle events and synagogue life, she is considered Jewish by the Reform movement. My problem is I don’t feel like that’s enough to make her Jewish. My daughter is Korean and I think people will question her Jewish identity. I would like to have her converted but I can’t do that without my rabbi, right? And what do I tell my husband? — Happy to Be a Mother

My response is here.

Posted by admin under Conversion, In the News, In their own words, Jews of Color, Mixed & Matched, Parenting
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Joo definition

What are the challenges that patralineal Jews face regarding their identity as Jews? Here are some of the things they have to say:

My dad is Jewish, my mom is not.
I was adopted and raised Jewish.
My mom had a Reform conversion.

Why do people tell us we aren’t Jewish?

Are you annoyed, hurt, confused by challenges to your Jewish identity? Let’s talk about patralineal Jews, halachic Jews, Judaism, and how to handle other people’s opinions.

Date: Thursday, Feb. 26
Time: 7:30 to 9pm
Place: Lehrhaus, 2736 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
Cost: $5
Register here.

Curious? Just call or email for more info. Contact Dawn at 510-845-6420 x11 or email dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Jews of Color, Parenting, Programs archive, Synagogues
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Little White Lie

Let’s Go to the Movies!
Join us for the SF Jewish Film Festival!
BJB is co-presenting Little White Lie
The film runs from 7 to 8:05pm. We’ll go for ice cream afterwards.

Little White Lie tells Lacey Schwartz’s story of growing up in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, NY, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity — despite the open questions from those around her about how a white girl could have such dark skin. She believes her family’s explanation that her looks were inherited from her dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather. But when her parents abruptly split, her gut starts to tell her something different.

Little White Lie manages to be both a particular family’s story of the price of living in denial, but also raises larger questions for us all: What factors—race, religion, family, upbringing—make us who we are? And what happens when we are forced to redefine ourselves?-Peter L. Stein

Date: Thursday, Aug. 7
Time: 7pm
Place: The New Parkway Theater, 474 24th St, Oakland

Buy your own ticket at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival here.

Read more about this film here.

Posted by admin under Community Activities, Film, Jews of Color, Non-Jewish family, Past Programs
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Korean_Adoptive_family from Kidworldcitizen org

A mother sent me this question about her adopted child.

I am Jewish and my husband is not. We adopted a girl, 8 months old, whose birth mother is not Jewish. We belong to a Reform synagogue and our rabbi said if we raise our daughter with Jewish lifecycle events and synagogue life, she is considered Jewish by the Reform movement. My problem is I don’t feel like that’s enough to make her Jewish. My daughter is Korean and I think people will question her Jewish identity. I would like to have her converted but I can’t do that without my rabbi, right? And what do I tell my husband? — Happy to Be a Mother

My reply:

Dear Happy Mom: You are the born Jew in your nuclear family. As such your perspectives hold a great deal more weight than any other person in the lives of your husband and daughter. If you don’t feel your daughter is Jewish, chances are she will pick up on your ambivalence and so might your husband. You need to do what works for you, even if it isn’t what your rabbi and your movement profess.

What you want to do is not against Jewish law or tradition. You want the validation that comes with the conversion process. For the sake of both you and your family, you need to find peace of mind and confidence in your daughter’s Jewish identity.

Chances are that your rabbi was hastening to assure you, but not forbidding you to convert her. Do you feel close to your rabbi? Can you call him or her and go meet to discuss your feelings? A good rabbi will listen to you and respond to your needs. I have specifically asked Reform rabbis whether they would support taking an adopted child to the mikvah and have they have said yes. If your rabbi is more worried about his or her views on the Reform position than on your feelings, you may have the wrong rabbi.

Since you are considering conversion, let me flesh out the options.

Conversion for an infant or child begins with the trip to the mikvah, the ritual bath. There are special tricks that help a baby go under water holding her breath. The mikvah folks will help with this. In the Reform movement, going to the mikvah could be all you need to do, if it works for you. In Conservative or Orthodox Jewish practice, children are given the option of choosing to continue to be Jewish or to reject it when they come of age — bat mitzvah age. At this point, the child can make a declaration of faith before a beit din (rabbinic court) and go forward as an adult Jew. Or the child could reject the choice that was made for him or her.

In modern America, this can feel like an odd time to make this offer because many preteens have just starting to distance themselves from their parents. On the other hand, it is an age when the child is particularly interested in being “different, just like my friends,” so if she is going to Hebrew school and all her friends are having a bat mitzvah, she will probably also want to have one.

Explain to your husband what we’ve covered here. Describe to him how Judaism has historically brought people into the Jewish community and how that tradition speaks to you.

Next you need to talk to your rabbi. You and your husband should determine whether he should accompany you. I trust your rabbi will support your desire. If he or she does not, then contact me again. While you need a rabbi’s help to convert your child, it doesn’t have to be your congregational rabbi.

You also mentioned that your daughter’s Korean background has heightened your concern about her Jewish identity. Honestly, you are right. There are people, both Jews and non-Jews, who think they know what Jews look like and who will question her. By going to the mikvah, you can give her something very concrete to hold onto. Something for you to remember is that there are more and more multiracial Jews, especially here in the Bay Area — so your family is part of an ever-growing segment of our community. Experts estimate that about 20 percent of Bay Area Jewish families are multiracial. In coming years, I encourage you to help her participate in multiracial Jewish events, such as Be’chol Lashon’s summer camp when she gets older, so she has immersion experiences.

A comment from a reader:
Great response, Dawn! I think it’s all in how you raise them. Rachel doesn’t seem at all ambivalent about her Jewish identity. We make it fun– Shabbat, Hebrew school, PJ Library, etc, and it’s what we do/who we are as a family. I think sometimes these concerns come less from a place of concern about Jewish identity and more out of concern related to issues of adoption. If she is YOUR daughter, she is YOUR child, she is your JEWISH child. That’s how I see it. Right now Rachel is just worried that she’s not Irish– ha ha– and is telling people that she knows Mommy is Irish, so maybe she is too, but really just feels Jewish. Go figure!

March 2014 Mixed and Matched column on J-weekly.

Posted by admin under In the News, Intercultural, Jews of Color, Parenting
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Michella Ore wrote a wonderful article for JVibe, a now out-of-print Jewish teen magazine, back in the spring of 2009. I contacted her recently to ask if I could reprint her article. I also asked her to give us an update on how her decisions were turning out for her. As a biracial daughter of interfaith parents she had decided to officially convert. First, here’s her 2009 story.

Catholic to Kugel
I had always thought about going to synagogue. But it wasn’t until a year-and-a-half ago that I stepped foot in one for the first time. I was 12. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., was warm and spacious–not like the cold pews I was used to sitting in during services. That night I stayed for the Shabbat service, and when it ended, my dad introduced me to the congregation. We joined them for Kiddush, and met some of the kids.
Being in a new environment was a scary thing. Everyone had obviously known one another for a long time, and I was just meeting them for the first time. I was shy about starting new chapter in my life, but I decided that I would come back and give it a try.
You see, I’m Catholic. My mom is an African-American Christian, and my dad is a mixture of Nigerian, Native American, Russian and German–and is Jewish by birthright. After years of attending a Catholic school, I realized that Judaism allowed me to question things in ways that Catholicism did not. Judaism offered me the opportunity to learn from the Scripture but also to question it. During my elementary years in Catholic school, I had always questioned whether Jesus was the son of God. I felt that we are children of God and that no one person should be singled out as more God-given than the rest.

Learn Fast
After more than a year, I still learn new things at synagogue every week. When I’m not able to go to services, I read the weekly Torah portion. I have also been attending a bat mitzvah prep class on Sundays in which we discuss Jewish women and their influences on the Torah.
In the beginning of my process of conversion, I had to learn how to read Hebrew. It was tough at first, but not being able to sing along in services was motivation to learn. I got help from a friend at Netivot Shalom, who taught me the basics. I also studied on my own, and now I can keep up with services and sing the psalms and prayers myself. But the most difficult thing has been studying religious texts and balancing my regular schoolwork. Add to that my extracurriculars and social life, and you have a pretty busy 14-year-old!
There were times when I was frustrated with Hebrew and days of religious observance when I had to decide whether to go to school or to synagogue. When I decided to go to school, I was questioned about what’s more important. I have since learned that religion and education are equally important, and I need to find a balance so I can get what I need from both.

Faking It
The process has not been smooth sailing. People have sometimes called me a “fake Jew.” Because of my mixed heritage, I’ve been told I don’t look Jewish–I’ve even been questioned about how I could possibly be Jewish. To me, stating that I’m a Jew should be enough information. I believe there’s no such thing as a fake Jew. The term is usually directed toward converts and those whose mothers aren’t Jewish, but I feel as much of a Jew as anyone. If you are a Jew at heart, you’re Jewish–period. As future generations are born, fewer Jews will still look like the “stereotypical” Jew.
Converting is important to me because I want to officially be confirmed as a Jew. I want to be acknowledged throughout the world as a Jew, without a doubt from anyone. Converting will state on paper what I have felt all along. Being Jewish is more than a religion to me; it’s a way of life. People say that being Jewish is just a religion, but it’s more than that. I know atheistic Jews who don’t believe in God but still consider themselves Jews. I have learned that Jews don’t just read the Torah, they live by it. And this is one of the reasons I was drawn closer to the religion and the culture.

It’s My Life
I hope the conversion process teaches me what it means to be a Jew, including the many devastating events Jews have experienced so I can share that pain and support with those who need help. I want to have a Jewish household when I grow up and pass along the teachings to my children. Along the way, I may even gain a thicker skin–after hearing that I don’t “look” Jewish, I hope to learn how to ignore negative comments and instead focus on my goals.
In January, I flew to Boston (my first time on an airplane!) for an event run by The Curriculum Initiative –a Jewish educational organization serving independent high schools. I was uneasy about the people I was going to meet during the weekend. From what little I had heard, East Coast Jews aren’t that tolerant of “diverse” Jews. So when I arrived and saw that the event was being led by an African-American Jew, I was pleasantly surprised. While I was in Boston, I met many types of Jews from different ethnicities who had diverse views on politics. The trip stripped me of my ignorance and reinforced my decision to convert.
Throughout this intense process I have learned that we must follow what we know is best for ourselves, even if other people don’t see it that way. I haven’t had everyone’s support, but I know it’s the right answer for me.

* * *
I asked Michella how life has been in the past 5 years. She replied:

I completed my conversion in 2009. I had my bat mitzvah when I was 16. I’ve felt pretty great since then and I’m almost 20. My school doesn’t have a huge Jewish presence on campus but I try to attend events when I can. While, I was in high school I attended Berkeley Midrasha for four years and went to shul at least once a month.

Being a multiracial Jew doesn’t really impact my activities. People seem positively intrigued when they find out I’m Jewish and I don’t feel the need to explain how – as I thought I would years ago.

In regards to words of wisdom, I would say follow what you feel is right. I chose to learn more about Judaism because of my dad’s lineage but that isn’t what compelled me to go through the conversion. I did it because I felt a personal connection to Judaism (the appreciation of questioning and digging beneath the surface in particular attracted me) and wanted to continue along that path.

Hope this helps!
Michella

Michella Ore

Now a student at Williams College in MA, Michella told me she hopes her story will support other young people who are curious and want to explore Judaism.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Children, Conversion, In their own words, Jews of Color, Spirituality
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A 2004 study of the bay area Jewish population found that 14% of families in our community include Jews of color. That means that at least every tenth Jew you see is a multiracial Jew or lives in a multiracial family. But that was nine years ago. That percentage can only have grown.

You would think that San Francisco is the ideal place to grow up Jewish and Asian. Certainly there are more Asian Jews here than in Chicago. But a slightly elevated number of Asian Jews has not stopped whites, Jewish or not, from saying, “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.” What is it like to live as a Jew whose identity is constantly questioned? There are advantages to growing up being told you are a Jew. But there are also advantages to being an adult, better able to put stupid comments into perspective. How does the experience of a Jew who converts as an adult differ from than of the child who grows up going to Hebrew school, has a bar or bat mitzvah and a trip to Israel?

In the 1960s a nice Jewish boy married a nice Chinese girl, bought a house in San Francisco and joined Sherith Israel. The deed to their new home stated that the property could not be sold to Jews or Chinese. In some ways that was a long time ago and things have certainly changed since then; but what challenges remain to being Jewish and Chinese?

On May 5th Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica, will partner with Sherith Israel to present a panel of Asian Jews telling their stories. Some of these individuals grew up at Sherith Israel and attended Hebrew school right here. How has their experience impacted their identity, their own decisions about raising children, and what would they ask us, their fellow Jews, to know and to do in order to better support their Jewish lives? How can we be better allies to our fellow Jews?

We hope through these community discussions to develop a more sensitive community, ready to care for each other, to help raise all our children, and to integrate those who come to our community and are seeking a connection.

Posted by admin under Jews of Color, Past Programs
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We had such a wonderful series of panel discussions in the East Bay about our multiracial Jewish community. I asked Sherith Israel to host the next gathering and several of our panelists grew up at Sherith Israel! Come on over and hear from all of them.

The Jewish community if the San Francisco bay area is closing in on 20% multiracial families. A significant part of that minority is Asian Jews. What’s it like to grow up Jewish and Asian? What is it like to convert as a Korean or Chinese or Filipino American? Join a panel of Asian Jews to hear about their unique and fascinating experience. Discuss ways we can be better allies to our fellow Jews, no matter their color.

Sunday, May 5 at 10am
Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., San Francisco
Free
Call me if you want more information. Dawn at 510-845-6420 x11.

Posted by admin under Jews of Color, Parenting, Past Programs
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