Part two of our three-part PAST LIVES series on Jewish genealogical research. Part three will be available tomorrow.
Kimberley Schroder was 15 years old when she finally got some details about her biological father.
Born through in vitro fertilization via a sperm donor, she found out he had been a UC Berkeley graduate student studying biology. He was from the East Coast. He was also “Caucasian of Jewish extraction.”
This information, discovered around 2002, would spark a decade-and-a-half journey for Schroder in discovering her religious and genealogical connections to Judaism, culminating most recently in a face-to-face meeting with her biological father.
Schroder, now 32, has spent most of her life in Lafayette. She currently works for Better Place Forests, “a natural alternative to cemeteries” in which a loved one’s ashes are spread amongst nature.
Schroder, who says her parents used a sperm donor because her mother had trouble getting pregnant, described her childhood as very secular. “The whole concept of religion was foreign to me,” she said. But Schroder, whose parents divorced when she was 3, does remember going to church with her cousins — an experience that left her curious but unsatisfied.
“I would enjoy going to church as a cultural immersion project,” Schroder said. “I didn’t believe every word the priest was saying, but I found some universal meaning. But it didn’t feel like mine.”
After finding out her biological father was Jewish, Schroder said, “I slowly started to dunk my toes into Jewish identity.” At Cornell University, where she studied environmental science as an undergrad, a Jewish bone-marrow donation group came to campus and asked for a cheek swab; perhaps she could be a match for someone who needed a transplant.
This was a big moment for Schroder. “A thing that is specifically Jewish applied directly and undeniably to me,” she said.
And those moments kept coming.
After graduating from Cornell in 2010, she moved to Canticle Farm, a 24-person urban farm and living community in Oakland, where a housemate began inviting her to Shabbat dinners.
“There was something about these dinners that did feel like mine,” she said. “I was like, ‘Is my DNA activating?’ There was something about these Hebrew songs and sounds and the rituals that I really liked and that resonated with me that I had never experienced before.”
In 2015, with a former Jewish boyfriend in tow, Schroder started going to musical Friday night Shabbat services at Temple Sinai in Oakland. The time she spent there pushed her to look for a more permanent Jewish community, which she found in 2017 when she joined a women’s Rosh Hodesh circle in Berkeley. This year, she got involved with Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that promotes Earth-based Judaism.
As Schroder continued building her Jewish community and practice, she wanted to understand where her family was from. Four months ago, she ordered a 23andMe DNA kit, which provides an analysis of a person’s genetic background. It also connects them with relatives who have used 23andMe and are in the company’s fast-growing database.
When Schroder’s results came back, it said her ancestry was 49.9 percent Ashkenazi Jewish.
But the results gave her more than that. Her biological father had also done a 23andMe test, and he had “opted in” to be connected to other relatives.
“Boom! There he is!” Schroder said in recalling the moment his name popped up on her screen. “It went from so big and far away to a concrete, real person.”
She messaged him through 23andMe, and he responded a month later. He had made other sperm donations, he told her, but she was the first of his offspring to reach out.
It’s this interesting dynamic of ‘I know you, but I don’t know you’.
As the two continued to message each other, Schroder said that she could feel a visceral connection to him. “I understand how his brain works,” she said. “His asides, how he goes on tangents. The way he closes threads and brings up information. Because my brain does the same thing. It’s this interesting dynamic of ‘I know you, but I don’t know you.’”
With services like 23andMe becoming more popular, finding a surprise relative is also becoming more common. In the first of our Past Lives series, Portland resident Jennifer Ortiz was caught off guard when she found out from a DNA kit that her biological father was a Jewish man who lived in San Francisco.
Schroder met her biological father earlier this month when he was in San Jose for business. They spoke at a restaurant for four hours, sharing each other’s life stories. He shared that he lived in Portland with his wife and two kids. (He declined an interview request from J.)
“He was super excited to meet me,” Schroder said. “He was a nice warm guy. It just felt validating. It felt like I got a sense of peace around it.”
Now Schroder is thinking of either converting to Judaism or having an adult bat mitzvah. She has approached Jewish Gateways, a Berkeley-based organization that helps people discover Judaism regardless of their background. Rabbi Bridget Wynne, the agency’s executive director, said she has heard many stories similar to Schroder’s. She said that it shows why an open and inclusive Jewish community, rather than a rigid and exclusive one, is so needed.
“This discovery opens up a lot of questions,” Wynne said of Schroder’s journey. “I think it’s so important to find ways to help make people feel welcome. From my point of view, if they want to be Jewish, they have the right to explore and make a decision. I encourage people to not let other people say they aren’t Jewish.”
Eva Orbuch, organizer of the Rosh Hodesh circle Schroder is part of, says she has seen Schroder go through a transformation. “She was more uncertain before about who she was and her identity,” Orbuch said. “Now I see her owning Jewish spaces. I’ve noticed a little more confidence and willingness to go in [to these spaces].”
Orbuch said that Schroder is a pillar of the circle’s community.
“She gathers people together. She shows up willing to be vulnerable and share herself. She is a seeker.”
“It’s belonging,” Schroder said simply. “But it’s also a connection to something greater that feels authentic and personal to me. I can see my sense of self in time a little bit more.”
Schroder said she now wants to do a pilgrimage to the countries 23andMe said her ancestors were from.
Shortly after Schroder met her biological father in San Jose, she sent him a text that read, “I just wanted to express again how grateful and elated I am to have met up with you … I didn’t quite know what to expect — and it turns out you’re a sweet guy that I enjoy connecting with.”
He responded with the same candor: “Although I was not able to share in your wonderful upbringing for the first 32 years … I hope to witness more of the next 64 years and beyond.”