My mom likes
to say that the best Jews aren’t always
the ones you find; sometimes they’re
the ones you make.
Whenever people I know are
asked about a circumstance of their childhood that others consider unusual
(“What was it like growing up as a twin? With gay parents? On a kibbutz?”), they
are always a bit confused: with no other childhood to compare it to, theirs
seemed no more notable than anyone else’s. So when people ask me what it was
like growing up with a non-Jewish father and what it meant when, twenty years
after I met him, he converted, I can only say that it felt as normal as any
When my mom met my dad, the ex-Jesuit son of an apricot
farmer, I was four years old and much more concerned with our preschool’s
hamster than with my mom’s romantic life. John gave me rides on his shoulders
and his sister had a swimming pool, so as far as I was concerned he was perfect.
They got married and, five years later, I joined them at the courthouse, where a
judge asked me if I understood that the man who married my mother wanted to
adopt me. I said yes, and just like that he was my dad.
By the time he met us, my
dad’s life included very few remnants of his rigorous Catholic past. He still
had a great love for early liturgical music, a deep understanding of theology
and philosophy (which would later guide his path toward conversion)—and a
handful of lingering habits. Hearing him say grace at a Christmas meal with his
family, I once declared that he was “praying to the wrong God!”
Still, I never felt my dad
gave anything up for us. He had left Catholicism several years before he met my
mom and has seldom, if ever, looked back.
His family may never quite
accept my dad’s departure from Catholicism, but they are curious about his new
Jewish life and make thoughtful, if sometimes misguided, gestures toward my mom
and me. His mother, who is now 102, sends me very religious Christmas cards but
scratches out “Merry Christmas” and writes instead, “Happy Chanukah.” I don’t
have the heart to tell her that they print Chanukah cards and, truthfully, I
like hers better.
In his search for a new
spiritual and theological direction, my dad approached Judaism as he does all
other endeavors, from scuba diving to HAM radio operation—methodically and
passionately. He read everything he could get his hands on, taught himself
biblical Hebrew (at one point even tried his hand at Rashi script!), and kept up
a rigorous correspondence with several rabbis. As he learned, so did I—not just
about his studies, but also about my new dad’s intellectual curiosity and
interest in Judaism.
Not having grown up in a
Jewish environment, however, my dad also had a lot to learn about Judaism as a
way of life. Had my mom been any less committed to her faith, he would have been
content with Judaism as an intellectual pursuit, and I would have grown up
counting down the days until I didn’t have to go to Sunday school anymore.
Instead, she involved us both in the practices of Judaism she thought most
important. We all had our pre-Shabbat tasks, rituals in their own right (hers:
cooking; mine: polishing the candlesticks; my dad’s: gathering together our
photocopied prayer sheets). Her Pesach seders took days to prepare and our
guests lounged around the floor-level seder table on piles of cushions and
pillows. It is because of my mother that both my father and I are Jewish today.
Her own relationship to Judaism is private and mysterious, even to me—but she
has a deep and spiritual commitment to her faith that drives and inspires us.
They say that it takes a
village, and my own Jewish identity was nurtured by many people outside our
nuclear family. I spent the best summers of my young life at Camp Swig. Once
every summer, we would wake up before sunrise and hike up to a nearby plateau to
watch the sun coming up over the trees. This was how I learned the
Shehecheyanu, and it’s the image I have in mind every time I’ve said it
since. Later, I became a leader in the North American Federation of Temple
Youth, and at Washington University in St. Louis, I was part of the student
group that organized services and activities for the Reform community. Almost
every major landmark of my youth—from my first kiss to the funeral of a young
friend—took place in a Jewish context.
As I learned more about
Judaism at camp, in high school, and during my Confirmation trip to Israel, I
enthusiastically shared my knowledge with my parents. And so it was that my
strong Jewish identity also informed theirs. Seeing how important Jewish life
was to me, my parents became more involved at our synagogue (Congregation
Emanu-El in San Francisco, California): taking classes, going on retreats, and
volunteering at the synagogue-operated food pantry.
By the time my dad finally
converted almost five years ago, most people who knew him considered his
conversion a mere formality. To me, however, his becoming a Jew was one of the
most memorable moments of my life. Standing with my mom outside the mikveh,
listening as he bobbed up and down while Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan recited the
blessings, I was proud not only of my dad, but also of my religion and my
congregation for welcoming him so warmly. Most unexpectedly, I felt proud of
myself for playing a part in my dad’s journey to Judaism—and, in so doing,
enriching not only his life, but also my family’s and the Jewish community.
Being the child of what
people call a “Jew by choice” has taught me that Judaism isn’t simply something
that is thrust upon you, but something that one works toward, and that we who
embrace Judaism are all Jews by choice.
I am now twenty-five and
living in Washington, DC—3,000 miles from home. These days my Jewish involvement
is sporadic, informal, but still meaningful. I go to services at a few
synagogues around town, mostly when there is a holiday or yahrtzeit,and attend
events with the “young professional” groups run by the bigger synagogues. Like
nearly all my Jewish friends, I date mostly Jewish men and have become good at
explaining to non-Jewish suitors why a Jewish partner is important to me. I tell
them (and myself) that the most fundamental things about who I am come from the
experiences I had growing up in the Jewish community—at home, at camp, in
Israel, even at Sunday school. I can’t possibly make a life with someone to whom
these things are foreign. But I often wonder how much of my “policy” is just
what I think I shouldbe doing, and I am haunted by the question: What if my mom
had dated only Jewish men?
My mom likes to say that the
best Jews aren’t always the ones you find; sometimes they’re the ones that you
make. Still, it takes a pretty remarkable person to do what my dad has done for
himself and for our family. Perhaps the question is not whether or not someone
has grown up Jewish—plenty of people who did aren’t interested in living Jewish
lives—or whether or not he would be willing to convert. More important, as my
dad has taught me, is the question of whether or not someone can understand and
appreciate the importance of Judaism in my life.
As my father prepared to
join the Jewish faith (and, literally, enter the land of Israel), he recited
these last lines of the Ve’ahavtah,God’s instructions to the wandering tribe of
Hebrews as they prepared to enter the land of Israel and become the Jewish
people: “Take to heart these instructions with which I command you this day, and
teach them to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). My dad has honored this
commandment above all others, teaching me that being Jewish is both a challenge
and a blessing, neither to be taken lightly. My humble prayer is that I can
someday bless my own children in the same way.
is a program manager at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
Calls for Outreach
President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler addresses
the Union’s Board of
Trustees meeting, Houston
We must do everything
possible to draw the non-Jewish spouse of mixed marriage into Jewish life. If
non-Jewish partners can be brought more actively into Jewish life, perhaps they
themselves will initiate the process of conversion. At the very least, we will
dramatically increase the probability that the children of such marriages will
be reared as Jews.
We must remove the “not
wanted” signs from our hearts. We are opposed to intermarriage, but we cannot
reject the intermarried. And we cannot but be aware that in our current
behavior, we communicate rejection. If Jews-by-Choice often feel alienated by
our attitudes and behavior, how much more alienated do the non-Jewish spouses of
our children feel?
We can also remove those
impediments to a fuller participation which still obtain in all too many of our
congregations. Even the strictest halachic approach offers more than ample room
to allow the non-Jewish partner to join in most of our ceremonial and lifecycle
events. The halachah permits non-Jews to be in the synagogue, to sing in the
choir, to recite the blessing over the Sabbath and festival candles, and even to
handle the Torah.
It may well be that our
collective wisdom and our concern for Jewish unity will lead us to conclude that
there are certain privileges which simply cannot be extended to non-Jews. If
that proves to be the case, I am confident that the thoughtful non-Jew who is
favorably disposed to Judaism will respect what we have concluded,
understand[ing] that conversion remains the path of entry to the totality of
what Judaism has to offer.
Let no one misinterpret that
I am here endorsing intermarriage. I struggle against it, as a rabbi and as the
father of five children. But if all of our efforts do not suffice, do we sit
shiva over our children? No. Our task then is to draw them even closer to our
hearts, to do everything we can to make certain that our grandchildren will be
Jews—that they will be part of our community and share the destiny of our
2005: URJ President Rabbi
Eric H. Yoffie gives
the Biennial Keynote Address, Houston
We need to do better in
welcoming the non-Jewish spouses in our midst. When a spouse involves herself in
the activities of the synagogue; offers active support to the Jewish involvement
of husband or wife; learns something about the rituals and customs of Jewish
life; attends Jewish worship from time to time; and, most importantly, commits
to raising children as Jewish, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of
our profound thanks. These spouses are heroes—yes, heroes—of Jewish life.
It is a mitzvah to help a
potential Jew become a Jew by choice. The synagogue is not a neutral
institution; it admits, without apology, its commitment to building a vibrant
religious life for the Jewish people….We joyfully extend membership in our
covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept the responsibilities it
entails...So we need to say to the potential converts in our midst: “We would
love to have you.” Special sensitivities are certainly required. We can ask, but
should not pressure. We can encourage, but should not insist. If someone
expresses unwillingness, we must respect that; and if someone says, “I’m not
ready,” we must listen. And yes, there will be those for whom conversion will
never be an option. But none of this is a reason for inaction.