A literal reading of halachah, or Jewish law, would suggest that I’m not Jewish.
But my mother and father made a decision before I was born to raise my sister and me as Jews. I had a bris and a bar mitzvah at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, where I also attended Hebrew school and confirmation classes. I joined my college’s Hillel, learned more about the Bay Area Jewish community when I worked at J. and studied Jewish texts through Kevah. From the matzah ball soup Shabbat dinners my family had when I was young to the awe I’ve felt in the sanctuary of Sherith Israel, Judaism has been integral to who I am. My whole life, I have seen myself as a Jew.
Growing up in the Reform community of San Francisco, I’d always known that there are Jews, mostly outside the Bay Area, who wouldn’t accept my Jewish identity, but I hadn’t often engaged with them. Arrogantly, as I will discuss below, I dismissed Jews who would reject my Judaism, saying these people were fundamentally misguided, that they were people with whom I didn’t want to engage.
But I spent five weeks this summer learning at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and that has changed my perspective. At Pardes, and in Israel more generally, I interacted for the first time in a meaningful way with Jews who wouldn’t consider me Jewish.
Now that I am back in the United States, I want to continue to engage with Jews like them. And when I do so, I don’t want to hide the fact that my mom isn’t Jewish.
My desire to “come out” comes from two important lessons I learned in Israel. First, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of engaging with people with whom you don’t agree, even on fundamental issues. Second, I believe there is power in my Jewish story.
I stand by the liberal San Francisco values with which I grew up, but sometimes standing too strongly behind these beliefs can make it hard to really listen to others. Through its basic structure, Pardes taught me the value of being in dialogue with people with whom one has real disagreements. Pardes is centered on the idea that two Jews of any background can sit at a table across from one another and take meaning out of texts through chevruta, the traditional Jewish study method. Time after time at Pardes, I benefited from the different backgrounds of my study partners. This routine of open conversations and dialogue naturally increased my faith in intercultural dialogue.
I also learned that there is power in telling my story. Being Jewish but not having a Jewish mother can be a symbol of a Judaism that is more desirable than a Jewish identity that insists on matrilineal Jewish inheritance or halachic conversion. The Judaism I favor is a Judaism that is not built on being born into an ethnicity, but instead on choosing to live up to the Jewish covenant and choosing to belong to the Jewish people.
I understand that this will make some more halachah-inclined Jews squirm in their seats. For some, strict adherence to halachah is paramount for religious reasons. For others, Judaism is primarily a rich cultural tradition that is maintained by following Jewish law.
Thanks to my time in Israel, I now have a better understanding of one of these Jews’ central critiques of liberal Judaism, that our Judaism has problems creating vibrant spiritual communities precisely because it lacks halachic rigor.
I take part of this criticism to heart. I personally have a lot to learn about Judaism, and as a group, we liberal Jews have work to do in creating an attractive, rigorous and progressive Judaism.
But the answer is not to surrender our values. Instead, we must continue to strive for a spiritually alive and communitarian Judaism while also holding onto our principles of tolerance and acceptance.
The more I engage with Jews of all backgrounds, the more I believe there is a desire from people on both sides of the halachic divide to create this type of Judaism.
Ultimately, my experience in Israel made me proud of the liberal Jewish community of San Francisco. But my time in Israel also taught me about the value of having conversations I didn’t want to have in the past. Even if someone goes as far as to respectfully suggest I undergo halachic conversion, there is still value in sitting down with them and challenging them to justify their position.
That, I believe, is the Jewish way.
George Altshuler, a former calendar editor and staff writer at J., lives in Washington, D.C., and is a reporter at the Washington Jewish Week. He is a San Francisco native.