My Journey to Judaism with Interfaith Roots

By Shira Aliza


I was raised in an interfaith family: my mom Jewish, my dad Christian. As neither of them was raised in an observant household, they decided to raise my sister and me with strong cultural, rather than religious traditions. We celebrated Hanukkah, Christmas, Easter and Passover, ignoring the religious symbols, focusing instead on our unique family and creating our own special cultural traditions.

Although I appreciate not being raised with strict religious guidelines, I feel that I have missed out on being involved in a religious community and social support network. I cannot explain why I feel more connected to my Jewish heritage than my Christian one, but I do, and I want my children to grow up in a Jewish community with a strong Jewish identity.

When applying to college, I looked only at colleges with strong Jewish communities and then enrolled at Brandeis University, hoping that the large Jewish community would allow me to explore my own Jewish feelings and to become more connected and involved with my Jewish roots. Unfortunately, I did not feel as comfortable as I had anticipated at Brandeis, because the Jewish students seemed to have been raised differently and were not welcoming of my secular Judaism. This, therefore, delayed my Jewish involvement and hopes of becoming a Bat Mitzvah while at Brandeis.

I was a sophomore at Brandeis when September 11, 2001 happened. This was a significant event for me, not because I knew anyone who died, but because it made me search for larger answers and meaning. Though I did not feel entirely comfortable with the Jewish community at Brandeis, I forced myself to attend several Shabbat services and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in order to find support during that difficult semester.

Those services comforted me initially, but eventually I began feeling uncomfortable, and disconnected, and ultimately my attendance at them was unsatisfying. I began researching Judaism, hoping to find traditions, prayers, and a lifestyle that I felt comfortable with, which I hoped would strengthen my connection to my Jewish heritage. Again, this reassured me initially, but I did not feel comfortable with the students in the community because I found them to be intolerant of those who were raised differently from them, and I didn’t feel that they wanted to help me become more involved by explaining things to me.

I withdrew from the community, ultimately disappointed with my lack of community involvement. I then attended a variety of Jewish groups and events on campus, including Reconstructionist and Reform groups, hoping to find a community and traditions I felt comfortable with. But unfortunately, I did not connect with the other members of these groups because I perceived that their strict upbringing did not enable them to explain or alter their traditions. I felt looked down upon because I was not raised in a religious household that celebrated traditional rituals. I not only felt uncomfortable sharing my family traditions, but I felt uncomfortable asking questions such as why some traditions are sacred and what compels someone to believe in God and celebrate Jewish traditions. Ultimately, my unease and discomfort forced me to abandon the Jewish community at Brandeis. However, I attempted to initiate a Jewish Interfaith Family group, hoping to find students who were raised similarly to myself. Unfortunately, there was insufficient interest, and the group was unsuccessful.

My experiences at Brandeis left me fearing that I would never feel comfortable or able to connect with any Jewish community. I knew my time at Brandeis was limited, and waited patiently until I moved back home to Seattle, Washington. I hoped once again to look for a community that would accept me and where I could practice and expand my Jewish traditions, beginning with becoming a Bat Mitzvah. In addition, looking toward the future, I wanted to find a community where I would eventually feel comfortable enough to raise a family.

I was introduced to a young adult Jewish community at the University of Washington’s Hillel organization and immediately felt welcome and comfortable in this group. I found a willingness from everyone to discuss their Jewish traditions and learn more about others. There are monthly Shabbat services at Hillel, and monthly visits to various synagogues throughout the Seattle area. In addition to the Shabbat services, there are a variety of activities, including classes to prepare young adults to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Perhaps because of my past experiences, I believe this is the right community in which I can prepare for, and ultimately become, a Bat Mitzvah.

I enrolled in classes for a B’nei Mitzvah group which began in January. I have always had a fascination with languages, believing that they are a historical connection to the people and culture. As I began learning Hebrew, I almost immediately felt a connection to my Jewish heritage. Even though I know only the alphabet and very few words, learning the Hebrew language has given me a new sense of connectedness to Judaism that I have never felt before.

Although I was raised in an interfaith family and I do enjoy celebrating Christmas, my identity is rooted in my Jewish traditions and life-long sense of being Jewish. The fact that I was raised celebrating Christmas (with secular overtones) has not prevented me from exploring my Jewish heritage and adopting more Jewish traditions, including having Shabbat dinners every week and attending services, learning more about the Torah, attending High Holiday services, and learning more about Jewish thought and history in the hopes of incorporating additional traditions into my daily life. I believe that because I was raised without a strong religious faith, I am now able to develop and tailor Jewish traditions to meet my own needs, which allows me to have a greater appreciation for Jewish culture.

As I have become more connected to a Jewish community where I feel welcome and comfortable, it is important for me to raise my children with a Jewish identity and involved in a Jewish community. I missed out on a strong sense of community and connection with others while I was growing up and do not want my children to feel the same way. Because I was raised in an interfaith family, I don’t feel that it is necessary that I marry a Jewish man, though this would enable me to explore my Jewish heritage and traditions, and make it easier to incorporate the traditions and culture into my future family. It has been my experience that many Jewish men would not consider marrying me because I celebrate Christmas. This has been hurtful, especially since I do not believe that celebrating one holiday inhibits my strong Jewish identity. What is more important to me in finding a husband is to find someone who is willing to share my enthusiasm for exploring Jewish culture and tradition, in addition to sharing the Christmas traditions I was raised with.

About Shira Aliza

Shira Aliza, a Registered Nurse in Independent Practice specializing in Occupational Health and Safety Consulting, lives in Toronto, Canada. She is an active member of the choir and caring committee in the same congregation that welcomed her to Judaism. Until recently she had served for 12 years as a Regional Director of Outreach for the UAHC (Reform Movement).