Jews Like Me

  

By Aimee Ellis

At Jewish summer camp (Camp Tawonga, to be specific), I felt a little different than the other campers. I wasn’t raised religiously Jewish and was also from a lower income interfaith family. I attended public school with mostly non-white students and had never been to a synagogue in my life. I didn’t have a clear understanding of my Jewish identity. My Jewish mother was the first in our family to stop Jewish religious practice, so she was struggling with how to best integrate being Jewish into my upbringing.

These days, my mother sometimes cries because of guilt she feels about not having provided me with a Jewish education or religious experience. I tell her it’s OK because I am the face of the new American Jewish identity. I also make efforts to encourage other Jews from interfaith and mixed race families to feel proud of their identity. I frequently hear from “Jews like me” that they want nothing to do with the mainstream Jewish community because they “aren’t really Jewish” or feel concerned they’ll be questioned, shamed or called out for not being Jewish enough.

My one Jewish connection, though, was Jewish summer camp where I didn’t know the prayers, but was relieved they had a large display to read off of so I didn’t feel ashamed or afraid to learn. To date, they are the only Jewish prayers I can recall from memory. As an adult, during my years working as a Jewish professional, I was astounded by the subtle difference in attitude I sometimes experienced within the Jewish community. I felt scrutinized whenever I asked questions about Jewish religious practice or shared that I didn’t know much about it. It was assumed that because I was a Jewish professional, I automatically knew about the religious practice. The subtle bad attitudes I experienced sometimes caused me to feel unwelcomed and excluded.

Aimee (on the right) and her friend at Camp Tawonga

I’m sensitive about my lack of knowledge of religious practice and feel ashamed when I don’t have special support and an acknowledgement that it’s OK if you don’t know certain things. When I go to synagogue, it would mean the world to me if the rabbi stated that they wanted to welcome everyone, including those not familiar with the prayers and practice. When I don’t know the prayers, I feel embarrassed and afraid someone will notice and think I’m not a good enough Jew. As for Jewish leaders and community members already going to great lengths to be inclusive toward every kind of Jew, I salute you—it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Our work is far from over, particularly with the population composure and religious practice preference changes taking place in America that are reflected within the Jewish community.  Each and every one of us can and should continue to find new and creative ways to address these challenges. Special support systems for “Jews like me” are much needed and can make a big difference in strengthening the diversity of our community.

Aimee Ellis is a San Francisco based speaker and writer on the topic of secular, interfaith, mixed race, and intersectional Jewish identity. Linked here are past articles and a webinar on this topic.

An Open Letter to Judaism from an Interfaith Family

  

Dear Judaism,

Well I’ve gone and done it. I didn’t mean to make you mad, but I can tell that I did.

There I was, a Jewish girl from New York, living my life, building a career, being a young adult in a big city, when out of nowhere — BAM — I fell in love with a kind mid-western man.

He was smart and loving and well, raised in a different faith — but frankly, the fact that we were in love trumped anything else.

But I didn’t expect you to be so disappointed in me.

You see, this man asked me to marry him, and there we were, planning our wedding — a Jewish wedding — because that is what we agreed it would be, because it was meaningful to me and I knew, and he agreed, we would keep Judaism in our lives. So I naturally asked a rabbi to be with us on our big day. he said no, he would not, under these circumstances, bless our union. I asked another and another and yet another and the prospect of having our Jewish wedding dwindled. But I struggled through and found a way to have the ceremony we wanted with a cantoral student who helped us create our beautiful Jewish wedding.

And then I got pregnant. A BOY, what a joy to behold! A blessing in our lives! But my husband had questions that I could not answer about mohels and ritual and foreskin and we sought the counsel of a rabbi to help. We called on your synagogues to find some answers. And we kept calling and calling and messages were left from the kind man who married the Jewish girl again and again, but again we were denied access to you. Once again we stood up for our family and the traditions we wanted to uphold and found a mohel that came to our home and we had a lovely bris for our beautiful boy. One fitting for bringing a Jewish boy into the world.

A third time I sought you out… to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husband’s background, I was told that your community’s children’s programs were reserved for those who were members and perhaps I should look elsewhere.

And somewhere that day, I lost the fight. I gave up on you right then and there, Judaism. You clearly didn’t want me. There are only so many times you can be turned away before you wonder why you are trying in the first place. You did not want my family, Judaism… so I gave up trying.

But I was heartbroken.

I know you’re trying to find a way to welcome us, but you’re not there yet. When we encounter your barriers and your walls we struggle to get through them. And eventually we give up, because it is hard and we don’t want our children to hear your clucking or your message that they are not good enough for you.

Yet, your articles and comments and letters to the editor tell us it is we who are ruining Judaism. It stings to hear that we, the intermarried are destroying Jewish continuity.

But I am stubborn, and there’s something about you Judaism, that’s too important to let go. So after I gave up on you, a friend and fellow Jewish professional told me that my experience was not the Judaism she knew and loved and encouraged me to try again. I found my own way to keep the faith in you. I created a Jewish home and holidays and traditions in my own Jewish way. And eventually, I found a community that embraced me and supported my family for who we are — and doesn’t punish us for what we’re not. There are so many of us out here making our own way… but also so many who gave up, never to return.

You see, when you denounce intermarried rabbis and talk about the declining vitality of Judaism, we, the families are listening to you talk about how these rabbis — whose families closely resemble our own — don’t count for you. We hear you tell us, yet again, that we are not good enough but that you are welcoming in the same breath.

So while some of your newspapers and your blogs and your institutions (and your commenters, oh gosh, your commenters) whisper too loudly behind my back and wonder what to do with a “problem” like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask “MOM? What time is Shabbat?

Liz's kids