Fostering Inclusivity in L.A.: How I Got Here

Keara and family

Keara with her family

I am the outlier in my family. The youngest of five, the only musician, the one who loved Sunday school and the only one to marry a Jewish partner. Growing up my mother said she wanted me to marry a “nice Jewish man” so that I could have a “nice Jewish last name”—apparently my maiden name, Cummings, didn’t sound Jewish enough to my mother, Froma. I know she was joking (mostly) and that having the last name “Stein” is secondary to the man I married and the relationship we’ve built. What neither of us knew was that because Jason was not raised as a liberal Jew like I was, a large part of our relationship deals with navigating our different Jewish backgrounds as we build a Jewish home with our children.

My mother was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and my father had converted to Judaism when he married his late (first) wife years before I was born. Though we were steeped in Judaism, by the time I was born, my family’s Jewish observance had changed significantly. I have vivid memories of singing “apples and honey for a sweet new year” at Rosh Hashanah dinner in our living room and Passover seders at my cousins’ house, but very few memories of attending services or programs at synagogue. It was a moment in synagogue, however, that left a deep impact on my life and ultimately led me to pursue the rabbinate.

I was 6 or 7 years old and my mother took me on a trip for work. When we arrived back in town we happened to be near the synagogue and decided to go in for Friday night Shabbat services. Dressed in jeans, I was embarrassed that we would stand out and people would shame us. We went in anyway, and about halfway through the service I fell asleep on her lap. When I awoke at the end of the service, the rabbi’s tallit was draped around me like a blanket and I quickly realized that Rabbi Herring had taken it off his own back and offered it to me. I understand this gesture even more deeply now that I am a rabbi and know the significance of my own tallit, and the meaning it brings me when I use it to bless couples at their weddings, and babies and families at birth ceremonies.

We entered that room embarrassed and anxious that we would be turned away, but instead we were welcomed with open arms and kindness. This is how I view the Jewish community today: inviting, engaging, kind and open.

I attended Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Oregon with roots in the Methodist Church. As one of only of seven Jewish students in the entire undergraduate student body, I was often the first Jewish person most people there had met. I was asked several times if I had horns. I was proselytized. I thought about transferring to a university with more Jewish students. After a lot of consideration I chose to stay at Willamette and to seek out a larger Jewish community for support. I learned that the people around me who were not Jewish strengthened my own Jewish life. By having to reflect on my own understanding of Judaism, I learned why certain things about being Jewish matter to me.

In college, I was the Jewish representative whether I liked it or not, and this experience is what led me to become a Jewish professional. I love thinking deeply about what Judaism means for people and how it is represented in our lives and in the world. I love being a resource, a reference and a trusted advisor to my friends, family and community.

Two of my sisters are married to men who are not Jewish and each of them has two children. I understand that religion is not a cut and dry issue for their families and I love being able to help them navigate religious life for their children. It brings me joy to answer questions like, “Does an English muffin count as bread on Passover?” and “Were Moses and Jesus friends?”

I came to L.A. in 2010 to attend rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College and I’ve worked all over town—at UCLA Hospital in Westwood, at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica, at OUR House Center for Grief Support at the 405 and Sawtelle, and at various synagogues in the Valley. There were days that I spent three hours driving through town commuting to work and back home in Pasadena. I love that each neighborhood in L.A. has its own personality and its own needs. I know that there are areas with concentrated Orthodox Jewish population around L.A., but there are not areas with concentrated liberal, secular, and interfaith Jewish families. This makes finding community that much more difficult, and my work important and challenging. I hope that we can gather people together in community for fun, inclusive events. I hope you will join me in celebrating Jewish holidays at CiclaVia, learning about the issues facing Jewish families at a local hangout, playing with our babies at the park, and playing with our friends at the Hollywood Bowl.

I look forward to working with IFF to continue this important work of engaging people in community and helping people experience Judaism without the pain of closed doors, but rather with the kindness of a welcoming Jewish community.



Rachel DolezalDoes the huge conversation about Rachel Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane, WA, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after it was revealed that she identified as African-American while her parents are White, have any relevance to efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community?

I’m not commenting on Dolezal’s conduct or its implications on race and race relations; Samuel Freedman addresses those issues and describes her as “clearly disturbed” in the Forward’s “How Rachel Dolezal Crossed the Line from Solidarity to Slumming.” Dolezal’s claim to be transracial has also been criticized as demeaning to people who are transgender, which I certainly don’t mean to be.

In “What My Black Jewish Son Teaches Me About Rachel Dolezal,” (also in the Forward) Alina Adams, a Jewish woman married to an African-American man, who has written six wonderful articles for us over the years, says that her three children “are being raised Jewish, and they identify as 100 percent Jewish, not ‘half’,” while her husband “didn’t convert, and he doesn’t self-identify as Jewish. But he does identify with the Jewish people via his children.”

Adams writes:

As the wife of an African-American man and the mother of three biracial children, I feel much more personally connected to cases of police shootings, racial profiling and the academic achievement gap for minority children than I ever did before my marriage.

Would I self-identify as black? No. Never. That would be insulting, in my opinion. (I believe even wearing ceremonial clothes of another culture is pretentious, though many would disagree with me.)

But do I feel black?

Sort of.

Then, about her husband, she says:

The same way my husband sometimes says “us” or “we” or “our” when he’s talking about Jews. I honestly can’t imagine how you can love a person and not feel like a part of their struggle. Which is a part of them. Which becomes a part of you.

So Alina Adams doesn’t “self-identify as black” but she “sort of” “feels black” while her husband sometimes includes himself when talking about Jews, and his wife and their children’s Jewishness has become a part of him.

It sounds like Alina would not describe herself as “transracial.” Does it make any sense or serve any purpose to describe Alina’s husband as “transJewish?”

I don’t think so. I don’t think coming up with categories or labels for people like Alina’s husband is helpful. Over the years, some people have suggested calling a supportive partner from another faith tradition a “ger toshav,” a Biblical category that literally means “stranger in the camp.” But the motivation is usually to allow people who fall into the category to participate in more Jewish ritual than those who don’t, and I think that’s a bad idea.

I know that some people would say that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “transJewish” because a person who comes to identify as Jewish can convert. But as of now there’s no civil or cultural conversion, only religious conversion, and in any event there are many people who feel sort of or partly Jewish who for many reasons aren’t interested in converting.

But the notion of a person who is born with and/or raised with one identity, who feels an affinity with and eventually adopts in some fashion a different identity—that’s what strikes close to home. There are many people who were not born or raised Jewish, who are married or partnered with Jews, who feel an affinity with Jews and Jewish traditions and who in some fashion adopt a Jewish identity, the way Alina Adams’ husband has. The increasing understanding that that kind of identity shifting happens is the positive implication of the Dolezal incident for those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

I agree with Alina’s conclusion:

My primary takeaway from the incident and my family’s own experience is that, apparently, identity is much more complicated than my husband and I ever imagined it would be before our kids were born. And that instead of having all the answers, we’re going to be learning right alongside with them—and the rest of America.


Postscript June 23, 2015

In the Sunday New York Times on June 21, 2015, there is a letter to the editor from Ron Brown of Brooklyn, who describes himself as a Christian married to  Jewish woman for 30 years, with adult children who identify as Jewish.

He writes, “Over time, I have grown to ‘feel’ Jewish myself. I even feel a bit insulted and left out when I am singled out as the only one in the family who is Christian. I can understand feeling so identified with a certain group that you wish you were born into that group, so identified that even a reminder that you are separate from that group hurts. I can understand Rachel Dolezal. But I would never consider lying about it. I wish Ms. Dolezal hadn’t either. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have been welcomed into the African-American community just the way she was.”

Michael Douglas Speaks Out on Anti-Semitism


Michael DouglasHave you or a loved one ever had the experience of overhearing or being told something point blank that was anti-Semitic because the speaker didn’t think they were in the company of someone Jewish? Michael Douglas did.

Raised without formal Jewish religion by father Kirk Douglas (Jewish) and his mother Diana (not Jewish), Douglas began to connect with his Jewish heritage as an adult, after his son Dylan began connecting with Judaism through his friends.

“While some Jews believe that not having a Jewish mother makes me not Jewish, I have learned the hard way that those who hate do not make such fine distinctions,” wrote Douglas, who recounted his first experience with anti-Semitism (in high school during a conversation with a friend who did not know he had a Jewish background) in a recent op-ed in the LA Times.

Unfortunately, his son Dylan also learned the hard way through an unprovoked encounter while on vacation in Southern Europe. Dylan was wearing a Star of David, which his father realized must have been the trigger for the encounter.

After defending his son, Douglas decided to use the power of his voice to speak out on a broader platform. “Anti-Semitism, I’ve seen, is like a disease that goes dormant, flaring up with the next political trigger,” he wrote. Simply put: “It is time for each of us to speak up against this hate.”

We’re glad to see that Douglas is inspired by the honor of this year’s Genesis Prize to take a leadership role in the Jewish community and to make his voice heard. He appeals to all of us to challenge ourselves to stand up to anti-Semitism. “Because if we confront anti-Semitism whenever we see it, if we combat it individually and as a society, and use whatever platform we have to denounce it, we can stop the spread of this madness.”

10 Months for 2

Jillian at camp

Jillian (center) during her days as a counselor at Eisner camp, with her campers

The need to belong is part of the human condition. We all want to feel a sense of home, we seek it out, we write songs and poetry about it and we hold on for dear life when we find it. I figured out how to belong to Judaism at camp.

My Jewish camp was the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I still remember the first time I drove up to the gates, sick with nerves, worried if I could fit in. I also remember the tear-streaked ride home those two months later when I was grounded by such a deep sense of belonging the likes of which I had never felt before.

Each winter, as the countdown for those bright summer days began, we would throw around the term, “10 months for 2.” I suspect that if Twitter had existed in those days, it would have become my favorite hashtag. And this was the reality that we felt deep within our pre-teen and teenage souls; that we lived those ten other months of the year in exile, waiting to return to the holy land once more for those two precious months. Oh, how much we could cram into 60 days.

At camp, I could not only figure out who I was but I could also be anything. I lived in Jewish time and space, where days were marked with fun and creative prayer and song, where we interacted with Israelis on staff who taught us about Israel and connected us to the larger Jewish world, where we learned and shared a common vocabulary and sang familiar Jewish songs in a way I had never experienced at my home synagogue. And because we lived in Jewish time, swimming, arts and crafts, drama and every sport imaginable became part of our Jewish summer camp experience. We were given ownership over our religious experiences and we celebrated Shabbat (and I truly mean celebrated) each week with creativity, music, dance and our own words of gratitude and introspection. I didn’t even realize how much Jewish knowledge I had gained in these series of two months until I got home and realized I knew every melody and every prayer and wanted to teach them to my interfaith parents and my friends (even if they weren’t as keen).

I imagine we all have those transformative experiences in our lives, the ones we think back to regularly, which we credit for our personal growth and identity. Mine was Eisner Camp and I would hazard a guess that the large majority of my fellow campers and counselors would say the same, even though we have all chosen our own, different paths through life. My path led me to the rabbinate, to wanting to make Judaism as alive and vibrant every day as it felt during those summers, to help everyone who wanted to belong to Judaism and the Jewish community and to create connections and friendships that last a lifetime.

The impact that Eisner Camp had on my life is immeasurable because these ten years later, the mere thought of camp makes me smile and remember a million experiences, moments, songs, sounds and people. Writing this blog post alone reminds me of the hot sweaty perfect Friday night song sessions, the trials and tribulations of camp friendships and the moment my team won Maccabiah (color war). I wouldn’t be who I am without camp. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable, engaged Jew—let alone a rabbi, and I certainly wouldn’t still feel like a little piece of my heart is living 10 months for 2.