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Teenagers In Love

May 19, 2009

Three teens from interfaith families who are active in BBYO agreed to write for us about their experiences with the pluralistic Jewish youth movement. What all the stories have in common is enthusiasm. They give an insider's view of the challenges and rewards of negotiating a Jewish identity in an interfaith family. Brittany Ritell's piece, Whole, Not Half is about respecting each other's traditions in an interfaith family. In A Tale of Love and Tolerance, Alyssa Mangold writes about finding her passion for Judaism in youth group. Gabbie Wynschenk's story, Sharing a Jewish Heritage in My Interfaith Family is about her wish to share what she's found in Judaism with her little nephew who isn't Jewish. 

Whole, Not Half

By Brittany Ritell

I come from a home with a Jewish mother and a Christian father. I am Jewish. I have always been Jewish and never even entertained the thought of being "half" of a religion. I came from a family of two faiths and I always knew which was my own. I mean, yes we did have a Christmas tree when I was young and decorating it with my father and brother are some of the best memories I have, but my parents were always sure to tell me I was Jewish.

The balance of celebrating Christmas and Easter alongside Hanukkah, Passover and all the other Jewish holidays has been great, because it has taught me an appreciation, love, tolerance and understanding for the religion that half my family celebrates. I always understood that this was not my religion; it was simply out of respect for my father and his traditions that we had a Christmas tree and stockings in the house. My cousins are jealous that I, the Jewish relative, always find the most eggs at the Easter egg hunt.

Brittany Ritell
Brittany Ritell

It was also a given that we go to our cousin's communion and confirmation and that our cousins came to my bat mitzvah. True, they couldn't all make it through the entire service. Let's face it, a bat mitzvah service can be two hours long and in a language they don't understand very well. Some of the cousins made it to some of the service though and it was special to me to have at least some of them sitting in the sanctuary listening to me chant my Torah portion and Haftarah.

Even when I had my confirmation, my grandparents from both sides came. Since fewer people know that Jews do a confirmation ceremony, fewer people came to the service. Unlike the bat mitzvah, it was not a day for just me. That made it extra special that my grandparents came. It makes any day better to have them sharing it with me.

It was always a good mix when my Jewish relatives went to the Christian side's celebrations and when they came to ours, especially for the holidays. We taught my dad's side of the family to play dreidel, to eat gelt and latkes and to wear a kippah. Or when they would come to our family seder, search for the afikomen and taste matzo ball soup, and in turn we would do the Easter egg hunts and exchange Christmas gifts. They would get a taste of our traditions and we would learn some of theirs.

Through learning the Christian traditions in my family, sometimes my brother and I would even come up with our own. At Christian family functions, my brother and I sometimes felt awkward when they would say grace, so he and I came up with our own little habit of saying the Ha-Motzi during that time. We would catch each other's eye and know that we were both doing the same thing. Not only did little tactics like that help alleviate any uncomfortable situations, but it also made me feel a little closer to my Judaism while giving me an inside joke with my brother.

The Christian side of my family has been supportive of my Jewish identity. For example, this year I really wanted to go to the International Convention for my youth group, BBYO, which was being held in New Jersey. Now my parents were having me pay for it on my own but even all the jobs I had weren't enough to cover the cost, so for the holidays my grandparents from my father's side put some money towards it as a birthday gift. Then, for Christmas, my aunt and uncle also helped me out. It was nice that even though we are different faiths they still keep involved and updated with what I am doing within my own faith. Whenever I see them they almost always ask what new thing I am doing with my youth group because it plays such a big role in my life.

In a way, both religions play a big role in my life, because one, Judaism, is my own, and the other religion and its holidays create a chance for me to get to see the other side of my family. Of course I will always be closer to my Judaism because that what I've grown up with and that's what I know and love. Yet, celebrating the holidays with other religions is what brings me closer to my other side of the family. Some of the best times I have ever had with my cousin come from when she slept over my house one Christmas, or when we play the game UNO, a Ritell family tradition, as the adults finish dinner.

Keeping up a good relationship with family members of another faith is such an important aspect of being an interfaith family. To miss out on half of the family is to miss out of half your heritage, half your history, half of yourself.


A Tale of Love and Tolerance

By Alyssa Mangold

I am an only child, and my parent's religious backgrounds are basically opposites. My mother was not religious in the slightest when she was younger, but as she grew older and had me, her darling daughter, she became somewhat spiritual, observing Shabbat and becoming very active in our synagogue. My mother forced me to go to synagogue with her every single Friday night, and my dad, a Presbyterian Christian, often accompanied us. My father was very active in his church growing up, attending Bible camp and observing every holiday, but has become less tied down to his own religion since.

When I was younger, and explained to children at daycare that my mommy was Jewish and my daddy was Christian, I used to think I had two religions. I wondered why I didn't go to church or celebrate any other holidays besides Christmas. Everything soon became clear when my mom told me that we celebrated Christmas with my dad's parents for the sole reason of being together as a family during an important holiday for his side of the family.

Alyssa Mangold
Alyssa Mangold in Israel on a hike.

Christmases at the Mangold house were always such a good time, filled with happiness, presents and tons of quality family time. As I got older, however, I shared my mom's feelings of awkwardness when a prayer was said before a meal and her sense of being basically stranded at the house. I also came to notice how accepting my father's family was of my mother and me, even though we were of a different faith. At a young age I could understand the ways my parents and their families accepted difference. Even though I did not believe in or cherish Christmas the way my dad's family did, it was still an important time for me to enjoy, and learn the values of, my whole family.

My attitude toward religious practice in my interfaith family changed most when I joined the single greatest organization in the entire world, BBYO. I became involved instantly, becoming president of my chapter in Northern Virginia for a year. I devoted all of my free time to repairing what less dedicated leaders had let fall apart. In doing so, I attended two summer programs that helped pave the way for my love for and connection to Judaism and Israel: CLTC (Chapter Leadership Training Conference) and ILSI (International Leadership Seminar Israel).

During my time at CLTC, I did leadership exercises, sang and learned to belly-dance. But most importantly, at CLTC, there was an optional minyan every morning which I chose to attend every day. I noticed how alive and ready to start my day I was after just a few prayers every morning. They really seemed to make a difference. I decided that services weren't boring and I wanted to start attending as much as possible. My song and services leader at CLTC really inspired my entire love for my religion and when I got home from CLTC, I attended services every Saturday morning for a few months straight. The other BBYO summer program I attended took place in Israel, my new favorite place in the entire world. I learned a lot about my religion and homeland, and came home feeling motivated to become active in my synagogue again.

BBYO offers many regional conventions as well, not only ones over the summer. The biggest regional convention of the year takes place over Christmas. In my freshman year I had to miss it to be with my family. This was the first time I resented being with my family over Christmas. I wanted to be celebrating the spirit of BBYO and Judaism with my best friends, not opening Christmas presents. My sophomore year, the convention ended on Christmas, so my parents picked me up from the convention and traveled straight to my grandparent's house. I felt terrible having to inconvenience my family, but I knew what my priorities were.

This year was the first year my family traveled to Pennsylvania to be with my grandparents and I went to my convention instead. It was strange not being with my dad's family, but I had an amazing time at my convention. I knew I wouldn't have had fun being with my relatives.

Although I skipped my usual Christmas tradition this year because of BBYO, I still remember what it meant to me as a child. It would have been very easy for my grandparents to not welcome their daughter-in-law into their family, but instead they welcomed her with open arms. Their attitude taught me tolerance. At the same time, I wonder whether having a different sort of family made it harder for me to establish a connection with Judaism. Through BBYO, I fell in love with Judaism.


Sharing a Jewish Heritage in My Interfaith Family

By Gabbie Wynschenk

My dad was born in Holland in 1942, right before the Jews were deported to concentration camps. In order to keep my father alive, my Grandma Klara gave him up to a foster family. My grandma was one of the only Wynschenks to survive the war. When liberated, she took my father and uncle from their foster families, and brought them to the U.S. They grew up in New Haven, Conn. My father, Jo Wynschenk, is a Holocaust survivor, and a proud Jew. My mother, Kathleen Nargi-Toth, was born in Norwalk, Conn. She was raised as a Catholic, went to Sunday school, had her communion and was confirmed. She attended Catholic day school and went to church.

Before my parents met, they were both married to other people. My dad was married to a woman named Jo Ann and they had three children, Kim, Kevin and Chris. My mother was married to a man named Carmine and had a daughter named Jess. Kim, Kevin, Chris and Jess all have no religion; they were raised in interfaith households without any faith or worship.

Gabbie Wynschenk and nephew
Gabbie Wynschenk with her nephew Charlie.

Though none of my siblings had any religion, when my parents had me and my sister Nikki they decided to give us a heritage, a Jewish heritage. We attended a Jewish day school from nursery until eighth grade. We now go to public high school. Through learning Hebrew language in school and through youth groups I developed a love for Judaism and found a strong connection to it.

When I entered freshman year of high school, my friend from my Jewish camp told me about BBYO, and I instantly fell in love with it. BBYO gives me so many leadership opportunities and teaches me so much about my Jewish heritage. This past summer I went to a BBYO Chapter Leadership Training Conference (CLTC). It was such an amazing experience and I learned so much about leadership and myself. This summer, I am planning to go on the BBYO International Leadership Seminar Israel (ILSI). I am now on the regional board of the Connecticut Valley Region of BBYO, as well as on a few international committees. Through BBYO, I am finding a deeper connection to my Jewish heritage and experiencing so many things that I would have never pictured myself being able to do before I became a devoted member of BBYO.

My brother Chris has two young children, Charlie and Tommy. Charlie and I are best friends; I am really close with him. I find myself thinking about Charlie' s future a lot. I have such a strong connection to my Jewish heritage, and that is something that Charlie will never have. Like his father, Charlie does not have a distinctive religion. He celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas, without going to temple or church.

I love being Jewish and I can't imagine what my life would be like without having the connection that I have with Judaism. My Jewish heritage is something that I am so proud of and I want Charlie to have something like that so badly. I have been exposed to so many different things and learned so much about myself through both BBYO and my Jewish upbringing. I sing Charlie songs in Hebrew that were sung to me as a child by my teachers and I know that he will never understand them.

When I went to Israel with my school in eighth grade, I felt so free standing on top of Masada davening shacharit and I felt like I was not alone when I walked through the streets of Jerusalem and heard the locals speaking my language. The feelings were so liberating and I wish Charlie would be able to have that same connection to something.

I think connecting to Judaism through BBYO is helping me to become a well-rounded young adult, and I wish my older siblings could have had that sense of support. My mother has converted from Catholicism to Judaism. She has found herself through her path to Judaism. She is one of the reasons that I am very proud of my Jewish heritage and I will continue to be for the rest of my life.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. From the Yiddish word for "prayer," it's often used as a verb in English. ("I'm davening at services tonight.") A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).
Brittany Ritell

Brittany Ritell is a member of the Brandeis University Class of 2015 who enjoys writing and dance. She hopes to work in the Jewish community throughout her professional career, especially in the field of Jewish youth movements.

Alyssa Mangold is a junior at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She enjoys reading, writing, being active in my BBYO youth group, singing and having a blast with my friends. The greatest experience of her life was participating in a three week educational and spiritual program in Israel.

Gabbie Wynschenk is a sophomore at Amity High School. She is the Social Events Coordinator of the Connecticut Valley Region of BBYO. She loves singing, drawing, painting and writing.

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