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The Gift of Being Jewish

I grew up believing that I was a Jew. I never thought of myself as anything else. I had been dunked in the water at the mikvah (a ritual bath used for conversion) when I was a baby and I knew that this meant I had to be Jewish.

All of that changed when I was in the fifth grade. I went to Hebrew school twice a week. One day at Hebrew school, my teacher decided to discuss the Law of Return with our class. The Law of Return involves the topic of matrilineal descent, which means that in order to be considered a "full" Jew, Jewish law states that you must be born of a Jewish mother. When I heard this, I realized that my mother was not Jewish and I questioned my religious identity for the first time, asking myself, "Am I truly a Jew?"

My parents made the decision for me to be Jewish before I was born. This was certainly the best decision that they could have made. If my parents had allowed me to decide if I wanted to be Jewish or Christian on my own, then I would have had to choose between my mom and my dad. This would have made it seem as if I loved one parent more than the other. They also didn't choose a religion for me and then ask me later if I would prefer to change my religion. This would have made it seem as though my parents didn't really care what my religion was. Finally, my parents could have chosen to raise me as both a Christian and as a Jew or with no religion at all. One alternative would have left me with confusion and contradictory beliefs and the other would have left me with no background, religious community, or belief system. Being a Jew is a precious gift that my parents gave to me. My parents' decision, however, especially affected my mom.

My mom gave me the gift of being Jewish even though she is a believing Christian. In many families, if one parent is Jewish and the other is Christian, then one parent will often convert to the religion of the other. My mom's religious faith was important to her. She did not wish to give up all her beliefs.

When I was born, my mom decided to raise me as a Jew for several reasons. The main reason was that she loved my dad very much and knew how much it meant to him to raise a Jewish child. She also respected the Jewish faith and my dad's beliefs. My mom knew that the Christian faith was built on the Jewish faith and it would therefore be easier for my mom to participate in the Jewish religion than for my dad to have a child raised as a Christian. Finally, making my brother and me Jews enabled my mom to help rebuild the Jewish people and do one small thing in response to the Holocaust.

My being a Jew was not always easy for my mom. Because I am a Jew, my mom was not able to pass down meaningful traditions and memories which she had gained from her religion when she was a child. My mom didn't always feel included in my Jewish life. At my Bar Mitzvah, my mom couldn't say certain prayers because she wasn't Jewish. She was also not allowed to have an aliyah, the honor of being called up to say a blessing before and after reading from the Torah.

There were also instances when my mom didn't feel like she could help me in my Jewish education. She couldn't help me chant from the Torah, learn to read the Hebrew language, or become familiar with the service. In short, my mom didn't always feel like she could help me grow as a Jew. Sometimes, it was strange and lonely for her to live with three people of a different religion. Even more often, my mom felt out of place at the synagogue. She would worry that members of the temple would discover she wasn't Jewish and disapprove of her or her sons.

Whenever my mom doesn't feel like she is included I feel sad, but I try to help her as much as I can. If my mom asks me about a prayer or loses her place in the prayer book, I try to answer her questions and help her find her place. Now, my mom has become so familiar with the Jewish service that I don't have to help her as much anymore.

Both of my parents have always shown respect for each other's religions. My mom always tries to come with my dad, my brother, and me to every service. She even comes to services on High Holy Days even though the services are long and it is difficult to participate. She took classes about the Jewish religion and says the Friday night candle blessing every time we have Shabbat (Sabbath), together. By doing all of these things, my mom showed support for the Jewish faith through her actions. Out of respect for my mom and her religion, my dad, my brother, and I go to services at my mom's church on every Easter and every Christmas. Both of my parents attend the interfaith meetings at our synagogue. They share with other interfaith couples what they have learned about living with two faiths in the home. In these ways, my parents have modeled mutual respect for each other and for Judaism and Christianity.

Over the years I have realized that it makes no difference whether one or both of your parents are Jewish. Reform Judaism has a policy of patrilineal descent to determine whether you are a Jew. If you have one Jewish parent and are raised and educated as a Jew, then you are considered a Jew.

An interfaith couple that is truly committed can raise kids with a strong Jewish identity. Thanks to all the actions my parents took, I am now very secure in my Jewish identity. My dad was the one who showed me how to be a Jew, but my mom was the one who gave me permission.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat 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." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") 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 "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Paul Frankle

Paul Frankle is a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School and lives in Menlo Park, Calif., with his parents and a younger brother. He reads Torah regularly at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Calif., and enjoys tennis, classical piano, and jazz trumpet. This article was an entry in the InterfaithFamily.com Network's Essay Contest, "We're Interfaith Families...Connecting with Jewish Life."

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