Finding their own way

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Imagine a multiple-choice test about faith. Now, play along. Pick up your No. 2 pencil and choose from the following options.

I am:

a) Jewish

b) Christian

c) Both

d) Neither

e) Confused

For most of her life, Claire Conlon would have circled “e.” Her parents — one Jewish, one Catholic — did not push any religion. Left to her own soul-searching pursuits, Conlon, 23, didn’t find a fitting faith until a few years ago.

The San Mateo native is one of hundreds of thousands of young adults who grew up in an interfaith home just before organized interfaith outreach efforts took off.

Consequently, she’s also one of many whose needs were largely ignored by the organized Jewish community.

“In middle school, when I decided to try Judaism, it was expected that kids have a Jewish upbringing, whereas I had nothing,” she said. So she stopped trying.

Then, as a student at U.C. Davis, she again got curious. She went to Hillel for Shabbat and felt embraced by everyone there. She soon joined a Jewish sorority and became president of the Jewish Student Union. She’s gone on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

“I think Judaism could have lost me if by chance I had not tried again on my own free will,” she said.

According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, Conlon is one of some 360,000 U.S. Jews aged 18 to 29 whose parents are of two different faiths.

That she eventually came to Judaism on her own is not so unusual.

Madeleine Adkins, a former resident of Piedmont, Oakland and Berkeley, grew up in an atheistic home. Yet the 46-year-old now considers Judaism intrinsic to her life and identity.

Isaac Goldstein Luria, 24, was raised with two religions. As a child, “the whole weekend was religion-packed, aside from a soccer game on Saturdays,” he said. That’s because his Jewish father took the family to Friday-night services, while Sundays were spent in church listening to his mother, a minister.

Aaron Rosenthal, a 34-year-old whose father is Jewish, spent his high-school years as part of an Episcopal youth group. These days, he works in the San Francisco Jewish community.

Maya Weltman-Fahs, 24, whose mother is Jewish, grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., with just a sprinkling of Judaism. Only when she started studying at U.C. Santa Cruz and met her Jewish boyfriend did she delve into her spiritual roots.

All are still trying to figure out exactly where they belong.

They belong to “a population that is not on the Jewish communal radar,” according to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Atlanta-based Jewish Outreach Institute.

Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (conducted by United Jewish Communities) showed that nearly half the new Jewish marriages involved a non-Jewish partner, the Jewish community as a whole has focused increasingly on interfaith outreach.

But virtually all that outreach is aimed at young intermarried couples and their children. The grown children of earlier intermarriages are very much the forgotten piece of the outreach puzzle.

“I see interfaith outreach as being defined as two people trying to figure out how to merge their backgrounds into one relationship or family,” said Rosenthal, communications director for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “It’s a really bad assumption that interfaith outreach needs to be about couples as opposed to individuals.”

The Bay Area, however, is farther along than most communities, said Dawn Kepler, director of Building Jewish Bridges, a program of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Kepler works with a partner agency, Interfaith Connection, which is based in San Francisco. Both agencies work mostly with interfaith couples and families, though Kepler said she does work with some individuals, generally after they’re referred to her.

Figuring out how to engage adults who grew up in interfaith homes is not simple, she explained.

Because the group is not monolithic, creating a program or outreach effort aimed specifically at a certain type of person is nearly impossible. Plus, she said, they’re not all looking for religion.

And funds for interfaith outreach seem hard to come by. While the Bay Area is “better than average,” Kepler pointed out, her agency is the same size as when it was founded in 1978. Since she doesn’t have a budget that affords much marketing, she depends on other agencies to help

publicize her workshops, forums and resources. That has its own challenges.

“I’ve read Web sites that I find repellent,” she said. “There’s so much in-thinking” among Jewish institutions.

“I’m constantly telling people that if they welcome interfaith individuals, couples and Jews-by-choice, then they have to say so,” she added. “If it’s not spelled out, they won’t get it.”

Many individuals are drawing their own road map to a Jewish life.

Adkins grew up in what she describes as an anti-religious home, one where “religion was thought of as the opiate of the masses.” She said her parents considered exposing her to Judaism but a rabbi told them it would only confuse their daughter if they weren’t planning to practice Judaism at home.

Her mother was Jewish, her father Methodist. Neither taught her about either religion. She never attended a seder or bar mitzvah, and has only vague memories of a Chanukah party.

“At one point as an adult I felt resentful and deprived because although I knew I was a Jew, I didn’t know what that meant,” she said.

In her early 30s she became hungry for a spiritual home. Previously, she had gone to a few Catholic masses, tried a pagan celebration and meditated in Buddhist temples. But she felt Jewish. She was scared to explore a community that she “felt totally disconnected from,” but she nonetheless began looking for an entry point.

She saw an ad in an East Bay newspaper for Kol Nidre services. It stated that Jews, non-Jews, gays, lesbians, atheists and believers were weclome. She decided to give it a try.

Years later she laughs when she recalls the experience. Adkins doesn’t recommend Kol Nidre as an “Intro to Jewish Prayer.” She felt totally out of place.

But a year later, she connected with a Rosh Chodesh group in Sacramento — and her spiritual spark burned bright.

Since that time in 1991, she has studied Jewish history, ritual and prayer. She served on the board of Kehilla Community Synagogue until last fall, when she moved to Santa Barbara for graduate studies. And when she travels for work, which is often, she makes it a point to go to the local synagogue (whether it’s in Memphis, Tenn., or France).

“I had this irrational fear that I’d get to the door and people would say, ‘Where’s your ID?’ — or they’d test my Hebrew,” she said. “But none of that happened. Nobody challenged my membership in the community, which was a very happy surprise.”

Goldstein Luria’s upbringing was the yin to Adkins atheistic yang.

His parents — products of 1960s-era radicalism — decided they’d raise their children in a dual-faith home, equal parts Jewish and Christian.

On Sunday mornings in Amherst, Mass., where he was raised, he would go to the United Church of Christ to hear his mother preach. On Friday nights, he’d go to synagogue.

His parents told him and his two siblings they could choose — or not choose — one of the two faiths.

“My parents really do believe it was a good idea to raise us both and whatever happened, happened,” he said.

“I learned very early on I was a weird case. Being the preacher’s kid brings its own level of outsider-ness, but I also wasn’t ‘fully’ Jewish.”

In college, he found his way to Hillel — inititally to pick up girls.

He became a Hillel regular, however, because of how it made him feel spiritually. “For the first time, I felt accepted enough to explore Judaism on my own terms.”

And though it was a gradual shift in his identity, he nonetheless felt stressed. Would his mom be disappointed?

“When I started to realize I was becoming a more observant Jew, I was a little freaked out. I talked to my mom, and she said, ‘Just explore. There’s no reason to stop yourself at the precipice of something wonderful. A religious life is awesome to possess.'”

Not long ago, Goldstein Luria married his college sweetheart, and in June the couple moved from San Francisco to Jerusalem. His wife just started her first year as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. In August, he began the Dorot Fellowship, which is designed for lay leaders of the Jewish


Rosenthal, an employee at the JCC S.F., grew up with two homes in St. Louis — one Jewish, one slightly Episcopalian. His parents divorced when he was 8. On the weekends, he’d celebrate Shabbat with his father and all their relatives. The weekdays were fairly


When he reached high school, he joined a youth group at his stepfather’s church. He liked the people and was an active member for about three years. Meanwhile, he continued attending Shabbat dinners but had stopped going to synagogue.

“I think my dad’s family was worried I’d float away ‘to the other side,’ but nobody said anything to me,” recalled Rosenthal.

At some point, he began to feel torn. “I remember talking very candidly to the priest at church, and telling him that because of my family I felt like I was going to let somebody down.”

As a student at the University of Kansas, he felt a renewed sense of Jewish identity, inspired by his history and literature classes.

“There was also this feeling that it was exotic or unusual to be Jewish,” he said. “I gravitated toward that. I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be unusual, I want to be in the 6 percent, not the 94 percent.'”

While he was gone, a new Reform congregation was founded in St. Louis. His family joined. When Rosenthal attended, he was blown away by the spirit and energy of the services.

“I was so proud to be a part of this tradition, to share it with my family,” he said. “It’s what I always wanted.”

Many young adults from intermarried homes find there are now so many of them, their background is not an issue per se.

“When I was first becoming a part of the Jewish community, I frequently found myself saying, ‘I’m

only half-Jewish but it’s my mom’s half! I’m really a Jew!'” Maya Weltman-Fahs said. “Then I became aware of the fact that I was the only one who really cared.”

Weltman-Fahs has attended dozens of Shabbat and holiday dinners at her boyfriend’s parents’ home. They’re Conservative, and they’ve always made her feel welcome. She’s also felt embraced by Moishe House, a sort of community center for 20-something Jews in San Francisco.

“Being a practicing Jew and a member of the young Jewish community was not so much for my boyfriend as it was for myself, finally having an opportunity to be a part of a strong Jewish community,” she said. “Growing up in a mixed-religion household definitely didn’t diminish my spirituality, it just scattered it.”

At some point in their lives, Weltman-Fahs and others like her have felt pulled in many directions. Will adopting the faith of their mother disappoint their father, or vice versa? Are they “half-Jewish”? All Jewish? Jewish and fill-in-the-blank?

Many have felt pressured to find a label or to renounce the non-Jewish parent’s faith.

“The first thing my rabbi told me during bar mitzvah training was, ‘You’ll have to choose one day,'” Goldstein Luria said. “I’m 12, and I’m like, ‘OK, so my upbringing is only good if I can choose one?'”

He finds that notion absurd.

“I felt like she asked me to disown my Christian upbringing, and that’s not the way I’ve ever wanted to go. It shows no respect,” he said.

On the flip side, Adkins worried her mom would be “horrified” if she embraced Judaism. But her parents have been nothing but supportive, she noted.

Because she forged her own way down Faith Road, she still carries with her a little bit of what she learned along the way, including Buddhism, Catholicism, atheism and Judaism.

“I don’t deny my other heritage,” she said. “I see my Jewishness and yet, I see it as a part of who I am, not all of who I am.”

As children of intermarried couples grow and mature, they begin to think about how the community should respond to their needs.

Adkins has noticed during her extensive “shul-shopping” that Jewish institutions are not always as welcoming as she’d like.

“I remember going to an Easter service once and being so welcomed. They really wanted me to join,” she said. “I’ve rarely had this experience with a Jewish congregation. There isn’t that, ‘Oh, yeah! Come join us!'”

She’s thought a lot about why this is, and hypothesized that Christianity, being the world’s dominate religion with a proselytizing tradition, is open and friendly. In contrast, “Judaism, a historically oppressed religion and community, is more careful to guard the gates, as any oppressed community is,” she said.

Conlon, the young adult whose parents encouraged her to explore religion, albeit on her own, said she’s convinced the best thing the Jewish community can do for people like herself is to simply keep an open mind.

“The most successful synagogues will be those that are most welcoming,” she said.

But how should synagogues and other institutions communicate that openness? Should they single out people like her, create programming specifically for her? Or is a simple, all-inclusive message better?

Rosenthal, in an interfaith marriage himself, celebrated the birth of his first child in August. He and his wife intend to raise their son Jewish, but with a clear respect and appreciation for his son’s Christian grandparents. He thinks the best resource for people like him is, well, talking to people like him.

“I do agree that everyone has their own issues, but that shouldn’t preclude trying” to develop outreach efforts specifically for interfaith adults, he said.

But Goldstein Luria challenges that. He doesn’t think an explicit this-is-for-interfaith-people slogan is necessary or appropriate. Making him — and others like him — self-identify just makes him feel less accepted.

He’d like the Jewish community to borrow from his mom’s church, the United Church of Christ. In explaining its attitude toward gay and lesbian members and ministers, the catchphrase is “open and affirming.”

“It’s their code word. And it might be a good code word to steal,” he said. “Why not be ‘open and affirming’ to interfaith couples and individuals? When we do open our arms to them, the Jewish community is richer for it.”

JTA contributed to this story.

cover illustration | cathleen maclearie

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.