Stories of regular Jews are meat and potatoes of new Lehrhaus event

Quickly: Sum up the makeup of the Bay Area Jewish community and where it’s heading.

Not easy, is it? But that’s the overriding theme of a Lehrhaus 360 seminar titled “Where We are Heading: Voices from Our Community — Imagining What’s Next.” It will take place Feb. 26 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Sponsored by Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica, the seminar will follow up on the Feb. 12 conference “How We Got Here: Reflecting on the Past 150 Years” by looking forward instead of back.

And while the recent Berkeley conference featured speakers mostly from academia and the professional Jewish world, that won’t be the case at the upcoming seminar. Instead, to divine the future, organizer Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan recruited 15 “regular” Bay Area Jews to tell their stories.

Rona Teitelman

“I’ve been inspired by the TED conferences,” Wolf-Prusan said, referring to the popular lectures about innovation and technology, which have gone viral on the Web. “I wanted to create an environment for voices that don’t normally get invited to conferences, but are present everywhere.”

The short talks will reflect the dynamism of the Bay Area Jewish community. Some of the titles: “I was born Black and Jewish. Why do people keep asking me how I got to be Jewish?” “We are an Asian-Jewish couple raising our kids as Jews. How compatible have our traditions been?” “We were born in Israel, immigrated to the U.S., and raised our children here. Why did our son enlist in the Israeli army?”

“No one is being paid,” Wolf-Prusan said. “There’s no keynote speaker, no panel of experts.” Along with the presentations, there will be refreshments and community conversations.

Abi Karlin-Resnick is one of the speakers. Married to Andy Cheng, a Chinese American who converted to Judaism, the Palo Alto resident will address the challenges of rearing children in a home that reveres two traditions. Because the couple lives in the Bay Area, their experiences have been positive.

“What’s important to us is understanding the different aspects of cultural identity,” Karlin-Resnick said. “Our kids have a very different experience from Andy or me because they have the combination. If you ask [our son] Jordan, ‘Are you Chinese or Jewish?’, he would think it’s a silly question.”

Andy Cheng, Abi Karlin-Resnick and their two children, Jordan (standing) and Noah

The family belongs to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills where, she says, “no one bats an eye” at their family’s multi-racial makeup. Though raised Catholic, Cheng found himself drawn to Judaism, and once he made up his mind to convert, his Chinese family — including his brother, an Episcopal priest — were supportive. At the same time, the couple’s two young sons live in a household in which Mandarin is the main language.

“Jordan is in a Mandarin immersion after-school program,” Karlin-Resnick said. “Noah is in a Mandarin pre-K. The Chinese side of our kids’ culture is just as important [as the Jewish side].”

For Rona Teitelman, the Jewish side is the only side for her 13-year-old son. She conceived him via artificial insemination, and today, unmarried, she represents a segment of the Jewish community that would not have existed a few decades ago: the single mother by choice.

A donor services manager with the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, Teitelman did not grow up “expecting to be single in my 30s,” but the decision to have a child was not difficult. “I’m a mother by choice; single by happenstance,” she said.

Working in the Jewish community — she was an office manager at Berkeley Hillel before her job at the federation — helped the Connecticut native keep alive the Judaism she grew up with, both for herself and her son. Like Karlin-Resnick, Teitelman also feels fully embraced by the comm-unity.

“I haven’t felt any organized Jewish entity has not been open to us,” she said. “There are a lot of Jewish women in [my] situation.”

How does her situation play into the future? Teitelman feels institutions must welcome families like hers and Karlin-Resnick’s if the Jewish community is to survive.

“If we say to an interfaith couple we don’t want your non-Jewish spouse, they are going to go away,” she said. “We would only be hurting ourselves.”

Wolf-Prusan is eager to hear the speakers reflect.

“I just want them to tell their stories,” he said, “[addressing] the existential questions: ‘Where am I now?’ ”

For a conference all about the future, the rabbi is betting the present will prove the best predictor. Asked why he didn’t invite professional futurists, who compose a whole field of academic study, Wolf Prusan had a pat answer.

“They’re usually wrong.”

“Where We Are Heading: Voices From Our Community — Imagining What’s Next” will run from 1 to 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $25 at the door, $15 pre-registration. or (510) 845-6420.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at