For young adults born into interfaith families, defining their Jewish identity is complex and finding acceptance often is difficult. The burden is even heavier for mixed-race individuals.
Take Victoria Alara Alcoset, 47, born to an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a Catholic father with Native American and Mexican-American roots. Brought up Catholic, Alcoset said she “gravitated toward Jewish religious practice in young adulthood.” But when she planned her adult bat mitzvah, a rabbi suggested she first convert.
Alcoset told her story during a panel discussion at “Growing Up Interfaith: First Person Stories, Current Findings and Best Practices,” a conference held May 22 at Temple Sinai in Oakland. About 65 people attended workshops and a panel discussion.
The keynote speaker, demographer Bruce A. Phillips, told an equally harrowing story. “When an African-American woman walked into a synagogue in her new city to say Kaddish for her mother, the rabbi welcomed her warmly because he thought she must be the cleaning woman’s daughter,” he said.
Asian-American Jews also experience not being accepted as Jews, Phillips said, as well as people who “look Jewish” but have last names that indicate a different ethnicity. Phillips teaches sociology at the University of Southern California and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Five years ago, conference organizer Dawn Kepler teamed up with Phillips to study the experiences of adult children born into families with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent. Inspiration for the study, called “Somewhere in Between,” came to Kepler when yet another young adult from an interfaith family sat in Kepler’s office, crying and confused, as she wrestled with whether she was “really Jewish.”
Kepler heads Building Jewish Bridges, a program for interfaith families that operates through Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica. Lehrhaus presented the conference, which was sponsored by several Jewish agencies.
Phillips noted in his address that about half of millennial American Jews are the children of intermarriage and that 90 percent of these children from intermarried homes marry non-Jews.
Phillips and Kepler so far have interviewed 50 adult children of intermarriage, called “informants,” for their study.
None of the informants consider themselves “half” Jewish, even those with Jewish fathers and mothers of another faith, Phillips said. One described himself as “half Japanese, half Russian and all Jewish.” Another said she was “all Christian and all Jewish.”
“Our informants feel they can be part of two different cultures without a conflict,” Phillips said. “In this regard, they are not unlike other millennial Jews who feel at home in multiple cultures.”
A big advantage mentioned by some informants was “being more tolerant of non-Jews.” Others spoke of the benefits of learning about two cultures. Informants cited “cultural deprivation” as the main disadvantage of their upbringing. One person reported it was “risky” to say he was Jewish because then people made assumptions about what he knew about Judaism. Another said, “It was like there was a secret handshake that I didn’t know.”
Many informants said they are not opposed to marrying non-Jews and creating another interfaith family. “They say it worked for my parents, so why not me,” Phillips said.
Panel member Daniel Tamor Liu Citron, who appeared at the conference via Skype, agreed. Citron said when it comes time for him to marry, his hope is that his intended “will not look anything like me” because he has benefited so deeply from his experience as the child of an interfaith couple.
“My name reflects my father’s Ashkenazi Jewish background and my mother’s Chinese background,” said Citron, 29. He was brought up Reform at Temple Sinai, where his father is board vice president, and he went to both Jewish camp and Chinese camp. The family “celebrated major Jewish holidays, said blessings for Shabbat and also had candy on Easter and a tree on Christmas.”
Citron said he identifies as Jewish, though he does not now attend services regularly. “When I do go, I usually go to Conservative services,” he said. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is a doctoral candidate in the physics department at Cornell University. “Academia is my religion now,” he explained.
The panel discussion also included Zoe Francesca, 49, of Berkeley, and Marty Ross, 55, of Kensington.
The take-away message Kepler stated throughout the conference was: “Don’t ask.”
“When people don’t look the part or the name doesn’t sound quite right, be polite,” she said. “We don’t have time for this, and we need to stop messaging disapproval.”
Reflecting on the theme of who is Jewish and who is not, Kepler said when the question came up in another forum she attended, a rabbi present asked his 11-year-old son what he thought.
“If people are sitting in the synagogue,” the boy said, “they must be Jewish.”