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When Her Christian Mother and Her Jewish Step-Father Got Divorced, She Kept Her Judaism

January 2000

When Stephanie Smith's mother and stepfather got divorced, she lost her Jewish father. But she didn't lose her Judaism.

"I have considered myself Jewish since I was five," says Smith, 18. "I'm more Jewish than a lot of my friends who are Jewish by blood."

Stephanie comes from one of those modern California families with stepsiblings, half-siblings, an assortment of stepparents with almost as many religions as there are in Jerusalem. There's a Christian Scientist, a Buddhist, several Protestants, and a Jewish stepfather.

Although neither of Stephanie's birth parents are Jewish, when her mother Caroline Jones married Michael Weissman, they decided to raise Stephanie and Kayla, Weissman's daughter by his first marriage, Jewish.

"Michael and I decided it would be good to raise the children with a religious background because it would give them a moral grounding. They don't teach that at school," says Jones. "My personal reason was that I felt it would be an honor to bring Jews into the world after the Holocaust."

For the girls it was like something out of the movies. Only six months apart, they had been friends at a Montessori pre-school in Oakland, Calif., which is how their parents met. Kayla had almost no contact with her birth mother, and the girls were raised as sisters.

For Jones, who had no Jewish training, it meant learning how to keep a Jewish home. She studied with their rabbi, took classes at the Jewish Community Center, and read. She became active in their synagogue and oversaw the celebration of all the Jewish holidays. Ultimately she was the parent in charge of the girls' Jewish education and making them feel Jewish.

"We did a big Shabbat thing all though their childhood," said Jones. "It was the best part of the week."

But Smith always felt that it was her decision whether or not to be Jewish.

"One of the things that really made me appreciate Judaism and stick with it is that [my mother and stepfather] gave me the choice of being Jewish and going to Hebrew school," she says. One year she attended a Christian Sunday school as well as religious school at her synagogue. But that, she says, was more out of intellectual curiosity and for the social aspect. "Judaism has the right feel for me. I can say that because I have seen and learned about other religions."

And just like many kids, she only wavered once.

"Around the time of my bat mitzvah I thought, is this what I want to do? It's really a lot of work,’" remembers Stephanie. But she went through with it and continued her Jewish education, getting confirmed and later graduating from Midrasha.

At the end of her sophomore year in high school Smith decided to convert. It was around the time of her mother and stepfather's divorce and also right before she went on a summer youth trip to Israel. She thought converting would make her more acceptable to the Orthodoxy in Israel.

Although she found going to the mikvah, or ritual bath, a spiritual and cleansing experience, converting didn't make her feel more Jewish.

"Conversion was a formality," said Smith. "It didn't impact my Judaism at all."

In retrospect she has some regrets about having done it at all and buying into Orthodox rules.

"I'm still not Jewish by Orthodox standards," she says of her Reform conversion.

Now a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Smith is active in the Jewish Students Association and occasionally attends Friday night services. Following an anti-Semitic incident where a menorah on campus was vandalized, she joined with other students in a community Havdalah service, marking the end of the Sabbath, and wore a blue ribbon to protest the anti-Semitism.

Although Smith totally identifies herself as a Jew and has no question that she will raise her children Jewish, people are often surprised to find out that she is Jewish. With her long blonde hair, she doesn't look it.

"Well, I am," Smith says when people remark on her appearance. "I don't feel I have to qualify it by saying I converted. I am Jewish. Ignore the hair color, and I'm completely Jewish."

She's even dating a Jewish guy who also has blond hair and blue eyes, and she finds that most of her friends are Jewish.

"Judaism has such a warm welcoming feeling because it's also cultural," says Smith.

Back in Oakland, her mother feels the same way. Although she is now single, Jones continues to maintain a Jewish home and is still active in the temple.

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." Hebrew for "separation" or "distinction," the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) 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 "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. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern Calif.

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