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My Orthodox Boyfriend

Arel is a 23-year-old Jamaican observant Jew who attends Orthodox Jewish services, wears tzitzit under his clothes and prays with tefillin. He is my boyfriend of five years. I am a 28-year-old Korean-Puerto Rican and can be loosely defined as a Christian.

Yolanda Febles and Arel

We met the day before my college graduation at a party in upstate New York. He had just finished his freshman year and I was about to finish my college career. Following graduation, my sister, friends and I rented a house in upstate New York for the summer. Arel happened to be in the same area taking summer classes at the university. We started hanging out almost everyday and became inseparable. We officially became a couple two months after our first encounter.

When we first met, Arel was starting to explore his Jewish roots. While I was raised Christian and still consider myself one, though I do have issues with certain aspects of the religion, I was questioning my faith. At the time, Arel attended services while I avoided church.

We both thought our religious differences wouldn't be a big deal since we both come from mixed backgrounds. My mother is Korean and my father is Puerto Rican. Every single one of my father's siblings, with the exception of one of his sisters, married someone who wasn't Puerto Rican. I have a Jewish aunt, a black uncle, a British cousin, a Dominican uncle, and many mixed cousins. When my family gets together, it looks like a United Nations assembly. Growing up as a mixed child was hard only because there was nobody else like me, but I made great peace with my identity in college. For the first time in my life, I found people there who weren't concerned with my ethnicity.

Arel's family is not only mixed but they're also interfaith. His father is a Jamaican Christian and his mother is an Eastern European non-observant Jew. Arel's mother sent him away to Jewish camps and Jewish after-school programs all throughout his elementary and junior high school years, while Arel also occasionally attended church with his father. Along with his parents and brother, Arel celebrated Christian holidays with his father's side of the family, but they had no involvement with his mother's side. However, Arel's mother really wanted him to be Jewish and his father never pushed Christianity upon him. They left the decision of his religious identity up to him.

Although Arel has now accepted his mixed background, as a child he felt conflicted growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood with a Jewish mother. The neighborhood kids taunted him for having a white mother, and his Jewish peers could not understand how he could be Jewish with dark skin. Despite these unpleasant experiences, Arel is now happy with his mixed background. Like me, he came to terms with his identity when he noticed in college that people didn't care about his background. In fact, he found a group of mixed individuals to associate with through a university organization for mixed students that my friends and I created. He also found a Jewish group, Chabad, that didn't seem to care that he was a dark-skinned Jew.

With our shared experiences as mixed individuals, we thought being together with our differences would be easy, and it was, for two years. Then Arel went to Israel, courtesy of an Orthodox Jewish group. It was after this trip that Judaism began to play a larger role in our relationship. Then in the summer of 2006, Arel went on a two-week Torah study retreat in upstate New York. Most recently this past summer, Arel went to Israel with another Orthodox Jewish organization to learn more about his faith. Each time Arel returned from one of these trips, he questioned our relationship: he wasn't so sure if a Jewish man should be with a gentile woman.

The more Arel became involved with the Orthodox community, the more I realized that I was seen as some sort of gentile pariah. I went with Arel to a few Chabad services but I felt so uncomfortable that I stopped going. I felt like I was being tolerated, but not welcomed. Knowing that our relationship was not acceptable to the Orthodox Jewish community upset me. Still, I wasn't that concerned until Arel told me he wanted a Jewish family. I knew my gentile womb was incapable of producing Jewish children. Nevertheless, I was hoping that there was some loophole or something that could help our situation. I refused to give up.

Soon, however, Judaism became such a tense subject that any time Arel brought up anything having to do with it, we'd end up fighting. To maintain peace in our relationship, we ignored the "religion thing" until Arel uttered words to me that I never thought would come out his mouth. Following his second trip to Israel, I asked Arel whether or not we should still be together since he wants a Jewish wife. He said quietly, "I don't know, but if we do get married, it would be kind of like a willing Holocaust. That's what the rabbi said."

What? Did I hear him right? I couldn't believe what he said. It wasn't Arel saying those words. I kept in mind that he had spent two weeks with Orthodox Jews in their motherland, but I was still upset. Arel asked me if I would convert and I refused. We broke up the next day, but the pain I felt was like death to my heart and soul. I knew I still wanted to be with Arel and I was willing to raise my children as Jewish, but I wasn't going to convert. Arel knew he wanted a Jewish family with a Jewish wife, but he wanted her to be me.

Our breakup lasted a day. We agreed to compromise and do everything we could to make our relationship work. We agreed to talk to rabbis who are familiar with this issue and Arel agreed to start visiting other synagogues. We still have a lot of questions, and although we're back together, the future of our relationship is uncertain. All I know is that I love him and he loves me, and I can't imagine our love being wrong.

Arel is scared of being rejected by his Orthodox peers. He doesn't want to betray his faith. I can see where Arel is coming from but I don't completely understand and probably never will. He is the product of an interfaith marriage--an idea that Orthodox Jews are adamantly opposed to. His father and his paternal family will never be welcome into the community Arel worships with, yet he still battles with the question of whether or not this is right.

Alas, there is no happy, clear conclusion. My hope is that Arel will find a place of worship and community that feeds his soul. If he chooses to be with the Orthodox community, our relationship will come to an end. However, if we can find a Jewish congregation Arel enjoys that is also welcoming of me and of our interfaith relationship, then we have a pretty good chance of making this relationship last for a really long time.

Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head). Hebrew for "tassel" or "fringe," the name for specially knotted ritual fringes (strings). They appear on the four corners of a tallit (prayer shawl worn during prayer services) and tallit katan (small shawl, worn by observant Jews every day under their shirts). 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Yolanda Febles

Yolanda Febles is a graduate of Binghamton University and the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York. She loves helping people transition into a healthy lifestyle as a holistic health counselor. She can be reached at yfebles@gmail.com or lifeandfood.com.

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