Why be Jewish Jews and non-Jews seeking answers

A fourth generation San Franciscan, Cheryl was confirmed at a Reform congregation and raised with a Christmas tree in the house, a scenario she said was common in the 1950s.

Marghi Kilmer grew up "kind of Christian" in Hawaii, but her mother was fascinated by Jewish culture.

Both women are deciding how Judaism fits into their lives as adults. Looking for answers, or at least the opportunity to flesh out their questions, both attended the second "Why Be Jewish?" Conference Sunday at Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham.

"I'm not saying I'm back" after a several-year hiatus from Judaism, Cheryl said. "I'm curious. So I'm here."

A collaborative effort between 20 East Bay Jewish organizations and funded by a grant for the Endowment Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, the "Why Be Jewish?" event attracted about 100 people — among them converts, partners in interfaith couples and Jews looking to reconnect with the community.

Morning and afternoon workshops addressed issues pertaining to interfaith relationships, parenting, Jewish spirituality, a Jewish view of Jesus and a Christian view of Torah.

Kilmer, 39, of Oakland, attended a workshop titled Considering Judaism: Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions. She's currently looking for a rabbi to study with for conversion to Judaism.

"As a child I was encouraged to find what fit me rather than fall back on what my parents had lapsed from. Judaism is the only religion I didn't have to edit to fit my own views. I feel at home with the prayers and the teachings," she said of her decision.

Meanwhile, at "Intermarriage and Conversion: Diverse Religious Practices," three East Bay rabbis discussed perspectives on conversion within their respective religious movements.

Rabbis Patricia Karlin-Neumann of Reform Temple Israel in Alameda, Stuart Kelman of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Eliezer Finkelman of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel addressed questions ranging from "Should I hold off on a relationship until my conversion is complete?" to "Will my Conservative conversion be acknowledged in Israel?"

During an afternoon workshop titled "Raising Jewish Children: What Does it Mean?" Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland's Reform Temple Sinai and Linda Walker, outreach director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Northern California, Oregon and Washington, honed in on such questions as "What is a Jewish child?" and "How can a non-Jewish parent impart Jewishness?"

"I'm considering converting, but I want to know how to add to my children's Jewishness even if I don't," said Kristen Oliner, 34, of Oakland.

Raised Christian, Oliner married a Jewish man five years ago. She's expecting her first child in June. Her husband, who considers himself a cultural Jew and did not attend the conference, wants to raise "secular children," Oliner said. But she wants to pass on Jewish traditions. Several non-Jewish women married to Jews described similar scenarios.

Chester suggested that if parents want their children to identify as Jews, they should keep Jewish books in the house and play Jewish music.

"The more you surround your child with Jewishness, the more comfortable they will feel with it," he said.

While most workshops provided an opportunity for questions and discussions, few firm answers were offered. Leaders didn't seem too concerned, acknowledging the conference as a first step in an ongoing dialogue.

"This, we hope, will be a catalyst to help us [Jewish agencies] meet your needs," said Rabbi Marc Diamond of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham.

Rabbi Lee Bycel, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and the event's keynote speaker, added: "I'm just hoping to frame some questions. I don't know how many we'll answer. This isn't a theoretical issue. I can't just quote halachah."

Yet, in response to the question "Why Be Jewish?" Bycel had many answers.

"Judaism responds to every act of daily living. Judaism places realistic expectations on us all. It allows us to change. It allows us to err. It acknowledges the journey we're all on," Bycel said. "Why be Jewish? Because it offers excellent perspective. It's a path to scared living. It's a partnership with God in doing works of Godliness."