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The Making of a Jew
by Rachel Flynn

Discussing Outreach

Reform Judaism has created a discussion guide for the home and synagogue on "Outreach: The Next Generation."

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 other childhood.

In Jerusalem with my parentsWhen 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.

Rachel Flynn is a program manager at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

Presidential Calls for Outreach

1978: UAHC 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 people.

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.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.