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Yes, being different is a fine thing to be

I received this question to my column, Mixed and Matched:

I’ve heard people say that Jews shouldn’t refer to people who aren’t Jewish as “non-Jews.” Is that really a pejorative term? What should one say? Many of my non-Jewish friends don’t have a religion at all. I’ve seen researchers refer to people who have no religion as “nones,” but that sounds ridiculous.
— Want to Be Appropriate

Dear Want to Be Appropriate: I’m so glad you asked this question! Most of the people who are disturbed by the term “non-Jew” are Jews who have decided to attribute a negative overtone to the word. Frankly, I think it’s a fine word. I work with couples in which the non-Jewish partner is Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, etc. Some are atheists and would be most upset to have anything having to do with religion attributed to them. What do all these people have in common? They aren’t Jewish! And that’s about it. Some are Chinese Buddhists, some are African American agnostics, some are French Catholics and so on. Their common ground is not being Jewish.

Does adding “non” make a descriptor instantly negative? I say no. I’m rather fond of many such terms; my favorite is nonviolent, though there are plenty more: nonsmoker, nonabrasive, nonpoisonous, nonfattening, nonaddictive. So I can’t accept that something that is “non” is necessarily bad. It may be quite good.

Why do some Jews get bent out of shape by the term? Sadly, many of those people are working out some of their own issues. They want to be seen as “nice, open, welcoming.” It is really about their own sense of self. Am I a good person? Do interfaith couples like me? Am I seen as one of the good guys?

A great way to be the good guy is to have a bad guy to attack. The attackers have written articles and given talks with righteous indignation condemning the use of the term. I’m always suspicious of righteous indignation. Very few people use it for the good of others. If a word is truly pejorative, like shiksa, one should certainly take the speaker aside and ask, “Do you know what that word means?” They should be enlightened, but there is no need to get righteous about it — unless you simply want to aggrandize yourself and humiliate that person.

I note also that people who aren’t Jewish do not react to the word unless they are told to. Giving people a reason to feel that others are disparaging them is a terrible thing to do.

I had a Catholic woman call me and say, “Interfaith! I’m in an interfaith marriage! I finally found out what to call it so I look for resources.” The number of non-Jews married to Jews in America is a tiny portion of the population. Jews make up about 2 percent of American society. Even if half of them are married to non-Jews, that means only 1 percent of Americans make up this “non-Jewish” part of the Jewish community. It’s easy to see why the caller was having trouble finding resources.

I do agree that the most appropriate way to refer to someone is by who they are. So if you know someone is a Methodist, it is proper to call them that. If a person is an atheist or agnostic, you can use those terms. This doesn’t mean that any of us needs to ask the religion of everyone we meet in synagogue. If it comes up, fine, but no layperson has a need-to-know situation over the oneg.

Identifying the role of non-Jews in Jewish environments is very important and I urge every Jewish group or synagogue to be transparent about their policies. In any religious environment, it may be that there are activities performed only by the members of that religious community. It is so much more welcoming for a non-Jewish person to know right from the website just what they are permitted to do. Imagine walking into a Muslim religious service and wondering, “Is it appropriate for me to do what everyone is doing? Or is that insulting?”

The most important thing we all can do is simply use good manners.

Posted by admin under In their own words, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Synagogues
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hanukkah-tree-ornaments

One of the challenges for people who have grown up in an interfaith family that has created its own little universe is that there’s not necessarily a community that one can join that reflects your choices. Here’s one woman’s difficulty.

My mother was raised Jewish and converted to Christianity when she married my Christian father. They raised us kids Christian, and my mom celebrated all the Jewish holidays in our home. I would like to marry a guy who also has fond memories of Jewish holidays so I went to a Jewish singles event. But as soon as I mentioned that I wanted to raise my future children as Christians they basically stopped talking to me. Why is no one interested in my kind of upbringing?
— Confused and Single

Dear Confused: I am sorry that your mother didn’t explain more to you about how Jewish law and Jewish customs work. It is not at all common for Jews to desire to raise their children as Christians, even while retaining the holidays. As a minority people, Jews have historically worked hard at maintaining their family’s Jewish identity from one generation to the next. With that goal, Jewish singles events are typically seen as a place where single Jews can meet other Jews with the purpose of finding a partner. I suspect that the young men you met were at the event in order to find a woman who wanted to raise Jewish children.

There’s a bit of irony in your story because, as the child of a Jewish mother, you are Jewish according to Jewish law. There is no leaving Judaism; born a Jew, you stay a Jew. But since you are self-identified as a Christian and want to have your children identify as Christians — granted, who celebrate Jewish holidays — Jewish men who want Jewish children are unlikely to pursue a relationship with you.

For your own sake, you need to find a Christian man who shares your desire to have Christian children. You can certainly celebrate the holidays of your childhood as your mother did. Did your father enjoy the holidays with your siblings and mother? Your future husband could certainly do the same. Since Christianity grew out of Judaism, Christians typically don’t feel conflicted when engaging in Jewish activities. I’ve had Christians come to a number of my workshops to learn more about, as one woman said, “what Jesus did and why.”

However, I would strongly urge you to teach your children how they will be perceived by the Jewish community. Also, be clear that they are being raised as Christians and let them know some of the differences between the two religions so that they feel knowledgeable and prepared to encounter strong opinions about their identity. Be aware that your identity is confusing for many Jews and as such, it is at times interpreted as an affront. Your mother’s conversion to Christianity and the duality of your home celebrations may be perceived as a betrayal or loss by some Jews. The people you encounter may become abrupt or suspicious when you tell them your life story.

I feel it is important for you to know that your own children will be considered Jewish according to halachah (Jewish law) because Jewish identity is passed through the maternal line. Your daughters’ children will be considered Jewish also. But your sons’ children will not. I know this sounds complicated and perhaps odd and random, but it is a tradition that is ancient. For the most part, modern Jews know and adhere to these beliefs.

I want you to think about taking a basic Judaism class. Currently you are in the awkward position of knowing quite a lot about some aspects of Judaism, but feeling uncomfortable with what you don’t know. I think you’d enjoy having a broader understanding. Maybe one of your siblings would enjoy going with you. You’d have someone with whom to discuss the things you learn and to compare them to your own experiences. I could connect you with a sensitive teacher and have you meet with them before the class so that they can be responsive to your unique situation and needs. Let me know if you are interested.

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This common question for this time of year came to me via my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly.

Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco

Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco

I am getting serious about my boyfriend (who is not Jewish) and I want him to understand what’s important to me about being Jewish. I’m thinking that this year I should take him with me to High Holy Day services. Chabad has free services and I was always treated kindly by the Chabad rabbi on my college campus, so I thought about going there. I was raised Reform; do you think I’ll be able to follow the traditional service and explain it to my boyfriend?
Wondering

My reply:

Dear Wondering: I appreciate your growing awareness that your boyfriend deserves to know more about what Judaism is and especially what it means to you. However, starting with the High Holy Day services is really pushing him into the deep end of the pool. I don’t recommend it.

In the 20-plus years I’ve been working with interfaith couples, I’ve seen exactly two people, both practicing Christians, who liked High Holy Day services. Two!

If you have grown up going to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, you are acclimated to the length of the service, the language and the atmosphere. But for your boyfriend it is utterly unknown and probably uncomfortable. The liturgy is unique; so is the music. The intention is to jolt Jews into a heightened state of awareness. Additionally, the reference to sins is heard by most Jews as “missed the mark,” but to most people raised in American culture, it can sound like the precursor to a quick trip to hell.

I suggest you take your boyfriend to a regular Shabbat service. At this time of year, many synagogues have outdoor services or services that include a picnic dinner or lots of music. Since you were raised Reform, I suggest you help him get familiar with a Reform environment. That is going to be most comfortable for you, and your comfort level will significantly influence his.

I would not recommend a Chabad or Orthodox service as his first experience because, for one, you would be sitting on opposite sides of the mechitza, which would preclude you from sharing a prayerbook and explaining things. Additionally, there are parts of a traditional Shabbat service that the Reform movement has deleted, so you too would be a bit confused.

I understand the concern about the cost of High Holy Day tickets, and I have a few suggestions. Rosh Hashanah starts the evening of Oct. 2. A couple of weeks before the holidays, this newspaper will print a long list of free services in the area (last year’s list at http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/75582 could give you a lead). Additionally, look at websites of Reform synagogues near you; many have lower prices for students, military and young adults. Or feel free to call me at (510) 845-6420 ext. 11; I can help you find options near you.

I also want to reflect on this idea you’ve formed: wanting your boyfriend to understand what is important to you about being a Jew. This is very important and he deserves to know. And you are doing the right thing by making this effort.

I want to you to consider the best way to go about assisting him. First, it is best if you and he learn together. Don’t make this a job for him with you as boss. Look for a basic Judaism class that you could attend together. Since most adult Jews haven’t studied Judaism since their teens, you’ll find yourself able to take in more of the details and the subtleties of Jewish history, practice and theology.

Many synagogues offer basic courses, and certainly Lehrhaus Judaica offers classes throughout the Bay Area, including an online option if you are located far afield.

Should you take him to services? Yes! But go easy. Find a service that is a bit shorter and has a lot of music. And, if you can, go with friends. Also, prepare a Shabbat dinner at home for him. Explain the elements of Shabbat at home. Demonstrate how Judaism is, in fact, a home-based religion. It is likely that the Jewish activities you will want him to do with you are home-based: Shabbat, Hanukkah, Passover. Have fun and be prepared to do this together.

Posted by admin under Couples, High Holidays, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Relationships, Rosh Hashanah
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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.

Posted by admin under Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Parenting
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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.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Jewish Culture, Mixed & Matched, Parenting
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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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