Full-Time Jews

By Jesse Tisch


Seeking: employee for Jewish org.

Qualifications: Jewish knowledge/experience.

Not required: a Jewish mother (or father).

At 22, Joelle Berman learned this the easy way. When she applied for a job in Boston with Babaganewz, a small Jewish magazine, no one questioned her status as the daughter of interfaith parents–a Jewish father and Catholic mother.

Even though “very traditional Jews would not recognize me as Jewish,” Berman got the job, exploiting her “Jewish resume”–she was raised Jewish, and worked in Israel–in her interview. There were bumps once she started; at certain times, “I felt like I had work harder to prove that I identify as a Jew,” Berman recalls. But for the most part, working for a progressive Jewish organization was a boon–so much so that she later found a job with another Jewish organization, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, in New York.

Danielle Freni, center, on the job at a conference in Nashville, 2007. Photo by Max Orenstein.

Berman’s story is revealing–but not unusual–as more children of intermarriage enter the vast Jewish professional world. Despite the challenge of having backgrounds that occasionally make them stand out, many are thrilled with their jobs, thrilled to have turned their Jewish passion into something that also pays the rent.

“I’m happy to say that I’ve worked in two organizations where diversity is embraced,” Berman said. “Where this idea of ‘authenticity’–blood, ethnicity–doesn’t matter.”

And yet on the other hand, their experiences–as Jewish educators, P.R. experts and copywriters–are seldom uncomplicated by their interfaith backgrounds. Thus the curious, at-times-ambivalent situation that many find themselves in, as they discover that workplaces aren’t fortresses where issues of acceptance and “authenticity” disappear; sometimes, they can be laboratories for the kind of issues that occasionally roil–and more often, unsettle–American Jewry.

Such was the case for Danielle Freni, who converted to Judaism in 2005 and in 2007 landed a job with Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. Overall, she “found people to be incredible receptive there.”

“I was more self-conscious during the process of conversion” than at Hillel, she said.

And yet, there was the time when she posted a story online about a Jewish student from an interfaith family. “We got comments,” Freni recalled, “saying that she wasn’t Jewish, according to Orthodox standards, halachic standards.”

Elizabeth McNamara Mueller, who does P.R. for a Reform institution, found a welcoming and collegial office, after first smoothing her way in. “It was just a matter of working a bit harder to prove oneself as a member of the tribe,” said Mueller, whose father is Irish-Catholic. Her strategy? “I would preemptively drop something in conversations that let my peers know that I am Jewish.”

The idea of “proving” one’s Judaism raises some dicey yet timely questions. As outreach evolves (and expands) to welcome more interfaith families into the fold, the Jewish community–and some Jewish organizations–are becoming more diverse. “Jews-by-choice” are becoming “professional Jews,” joining adult children of intermarriage at Jewish organizations. So what accounts for the particular, if not peculiar, response they sometimes receive from other Jews?

Personal insecurities might be at play, Jessica Bettelheim, an adult convert to Judaism, speculated. “There’s always this sort of subconscious measuring up against the next Jew. Like, ‘am I as Jewish as them?’ or ‘will I be accepted by them?'” she said. “If I can put myself at a higher status than the next guy, then at least I can say I’m more Jewish than them.”

Bettelheim–who began work as a project manager for the American Joint Distribution Committee Archive under her maiden name, Marsden–had a difficult time at first. Beneath the polite surface of office life, there was gossip about the new hire: was she Jewish? She didn’t look Jewish. And Marsden–what kind of Jewish name was this?

“What disappointed me is that there’s a rabbinical injunction that one’s status as a convert is not to be discussed,” says Bettelheim. “The rabbis say that, the Talmud says that. The rabbis tell their congregants this information. But no one really seems to abide by it.”

Another possibility is that preconceptions–about Jewish looks, attitudes and mien–also shape reactions, according to Lynn Davidman, a sociologist of religion at Brown University who has studied children of intermarriage. “So many Jews, Orthodox or not, think that they can tell a Jew–that they can walk into a room and figure out who’s the Jew,” said Dr. Davidman. And when they can’t? “I think that’s when people feel weird.”

Dr. Davidman pointed out that even liberal Jews tend to reason that to be Jewish, one must have a Jewish mother (or have gone through a formal conversion ceremony). “There are elements in the Jewish community who make it very clear that they don’t accept just anyone in their midst,” Dr. Davidman said.

To the adult children of intermarriage who were interviewed for this article, the rewards of channeling their Jewish pride into advocacy, education and social action–to name just a few–outweigh the challenges they’ve faced.

“Moving on, I feel less and less feel like I have anything to prove,” said Bettelheim, who overcame “a little insecurity” when she began her job. For Freni, whose job exposed her to a religious cross-section of Jews–from secular to Orthodox–diversity itself became a perk of her job: “just part of the professional experience.”

As for Berman, who sometimes encountered the stigma of intermarriage–“It was the first time I worked closely with Orthodox Jews”–she found herself able to trade, as if by alchemy, that stigma for a purpose.

“It’s become sort of a strange status symbol,” she said, laughing slightly. And besides, she added, “Once you start a job that has an impact on the lives and identities of young people–you really can’t go back.”


About Jesse Tisch

Jesse Tisch is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Contemplate: the International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.