“In the Mix”: From “Half-Jewish” to Rabbi

By Julie Wiener

Nov. 11, 2006


Reprinted from the (New York) Jewish Week with permission of the author.

When Heather Miller was little, she desperately wanted to be a Jewish American Princess.

In her Los Angeles elementary school, the term was not a slur, but a moniker proudly embraced by the cool girls who wore Guess denim jackets with lace trim. But Miller’s family couldn’t keep up economically with the “princesses,” and–perhaps more damning–her father was Unitarian.

Heather Miller’s father was Unitarian and her mother was Jewish. Now she’s studying to become a rabbi at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

“People would always say, you’re not really a Jewish American Princess, you’re not really one of us,” Miller, now 27, recalls.

One Friday night, Miller’s grandmother came over for Shabbat dinner and discovered the little girl in tears.

“She said, ‘Let me tell you something. My father, your zeyde, was a Cohen, which means he was a priest in the old temple. Which means he was Jewish royalty. So you’re Jewish royalty, which is like being a Jewish princess.'”

“If my grandma hadn’t said that, I don’t know if I’d be Jewish today,” Miller says, adding, “I realized I was authentically Jewish, and whatever anyone else said was their problem.”

Today, Miller may not be a Jewish princess, but she’s training to be the next best thing: a rabbi. In her fourth year at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, she is one of a small, but hardly insignificant, cohort of rabbinical students from interfaith homes. These future Jewish leaders are uniquely positioned to deal with interfaith families, who represent a growing percentage of the total Jewish community. Sensitive to the concerns of families with only one Jewish parent, they nonetheless have no illusions about the challenges intermarried couples–and their children–face.

“I grew up questioning a lot,” says Rachel Crossley, a third-year rabbinical student at HUC’s Cincinnati campus.

Although Crossley’s Jewish mother and Christian father agreed to raise Crossley and her twin brother as Jews, they celebrated Christmas as well as Hanukkah and Passover at home.

“I would actually tell my friends I was half-Jewish,” Crossley, now 25, recalls. “In my mind, celebrating both [Christmas and Hanukkah] meant I was one of each.”

When she was 13, Crossley accompanied one of the few Jewish kids from her Springfield, Ohio, public school to his temple for a Sukkot celebration. “I’d never seen a sukkah before, and I just loved it,” she says.

She returned the next week for Hebrew school, spurring her family to join the temple. Soon after, the congregation hired a charismatic woman rabbi, a convert to Judaism who helped Crossley prepare for a bat mitzvah at age 17 and encouraged her to become active in NFTY, the Reform youth group.

Although she wishes her parents had handled certain things differently, Crossley has no regrets about growing up in an interfaith home.

“My interfaith background had a lot to do with my identity and career path in being interested in Judaism,” she says. “Because it was sometimes difficult for me to access Judaism, I searched really hard to strengthen my Jewish identity. … I also had a great understanding of other people and was socialized into other types of communities, which I very much value now.”

Like Crossley, Miller began her formal Jewish education at 13, the age many kids cash their bar/bat mitzvah checks and bid farewell to Jewish learning. A school shooting spurred Miller’s mother to pull the future rabbi out of public school and enroll her at Stephen Wise, a pluralistic Jewish day school where she received a full scholarship.

“I loved it, I really loved it,” Miller says. “I got straight A’s in Judaica classes. I loved the intellectual search for trying to figure out the ethical thing to do in any situation.”

Like Crossley, Miller sees both sides of intermarriage.

Although at times she felt “less than fully anything,” her dual background gave her an appreciation for diversity.

“One of the great things about growing up interfaith was that every time we celebrated any tradition at all, someone was always explaining it,” she says. “I really got a sense of people articulating their own religious traditions and the meaning of religion in their lives.”

While Miller has not yet decided what sort of rabbinic post to pursue, Crossley–who is aware that the name “Rabbi Crossley” may sound a little odd to some–hopes eventually to lead a congregation. And she believes her background gives her some added credentials.

“Those of us who are the products of intermarriage may have more dimension to bring to the rabbinate in terms of outreach,” she says, adding that “if we can’t–as a movement and as rabbis–work on ways to strengthen [interfaith] family’s Jewish identities, we will lose them. I know how important it is just to have a small amount of Jewish practice in the home, and I feel like it’s important to nurture that.”

Miller, who says that many of her friends from interfaith homes have had “horrible experiences” of feeling excluded from the Jewish community, also feels her background makes her especially sensitive to the concerns of interfaith families.

“There’s a lot of talk in the Jewish community about how the products of interfaith marriage don’t identify as Jews and … the Jewish community needs to look at why–the qualitative aspect, not the quantitative,” she says. “What are some of the obstacles that turn people off from Judaism or Jewish institutions?”

Like many of their classmates, both Miller and Crossley plan to officiate at some interfaith weddings. Crossley says she will most likely require premarital counseling and will encourage interfaith couples to create an unambiguously Jewish home.

“It’s very confusing to have both religious symbols in the home, because the kids might ask, ‘Am I half?’ like I did.”



About Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.