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A So-Called ‘Lost’ Jewish Family
Mon, 02/07/2011 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Almost eight years ago I traveled to Israel for the first time on a Birthright Israel trip through Hillel. Recently I returned with my husband, brother and uncle to visit my sister, who is spending the year there on a Young Judaea Year Course. At first glance this hardly sounds different from the experiences of any other Jewish professional.

But my siblings and I are the products of a typical American Jewish narrative: attractive Italian Catholic pianist from Brooklyn meets disengaged Jewish rocker from Yonkers. They fall in love, get married, and have a family.

Did our mother convert? No. Did we attend synagogue? Not regularly. Were we exposed to Christianity? Absolutely. Religious institutions were frowned upon in our household, but being a good person, believing in a higher power and giving back to community were all emphasized. Amazing Jewish grandparents who loved and embraced us no matter how we identified were another important piece of our childhood.

Working in the Jewish community for the past six years, I hear a lot of negativity, even from the very funders of “crucial” Jewish organizations, that the investment in youth and outreach isn’t working; that there aren’t enough measurable outcomes. That we are “losing” Jews. I would not claim that we’re achieving miracles daily. Or that every success can be measured. But the situation is not the Jewish crisis that so many like to bemoan.

I take great pride in explaining to such naysayers that my family is a success story of the Jewish community; we are an example of the choices children of interfaith families make when they connect with welcoming, embracing professionals and organizations. The Jewish development of my family is no accident. We started by having a spiritual, open-minded and culturally Jewish family. The next key ingredient was engaged Jewish grandparents who exposed us to Jewish religion and culture, but never forced it down our throats.

Although the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Grandparents’ Circle didn’t exist at the time, I am confident that a support system like this program would have only further championed my grandparents’ loving influence. I was also lucky to have mentors who encouraged my spiritual exploration, and caring Jewish professionals who welcomed my desire for further education. By the time I had the opportunity to engage with the Jewish organizational world during my formative college years, I was primed to be open to the experiences presented.

One of my former bosses, Avraham Infeld, frequently remarks, “There’s only one thing that 90 percent of North American Jews do: go to college!” Hillel (along with other campus-focused organizations) is uniquely positioned to have an impact on the greatest number of Jews in North America simply by being a presence in one very common location.

Hillel had a major impact on my personal and professional Jewish journey. The first time I went to Israel was on a Birthright Israel Hillel trip. The second time was also with Hillel, to attend the 2003 United Jewish Communities (now Jewish Federations of North America) General Assembly, and it was on that trip that I made connections with Hillel staff that led to my eventual career as a Jewish communal professional.

And now, in a similar fashion, my sister, with little formal Jewish education, was accepted for a Young Judaea Course and is having a life-altering year in Israel; she is bonding with other Jewish students from all over North America, volunteering with various communities and connecting with her own Jewish identity in ways she never imagined.

Her ability to attend can certainly be attributed in part to the patient and welcoming staff at Young Judaea, which spent countless hours on the phone with her and our father, explaining all the ins and outs and walking them through the application process. Her year in Israel, a major investment in my sister’s Jewish identity on the part of the community, will have a lasting impact on her, our family and her future family, as did the investment that Birthright, Hillel and countless other organizations made did on me.

With nearly 50 percent of Jewish students on college campuses having only one Jewish parent, our family’s story is not an exception. We represent the community’s greatest opportunity to affect those who have had negative experiences, or no experience, with the Jewish community. We are the “lost” Jews that so many organizations are trying to “find.”

When I brought my brother and uncle to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the first time last month, along with my sister and my husband, I was thankful for all the professionals and organizations who have contributed to my success and to a meaningful Jewish identity for my typically American Jewish family.

Shannon Sarna is communications manager at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

American Jews, Intermarriage, Jewish identity, Jewish life

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This is a very nice piece, and it is great that Shannon feels a strong connection to the Jewish community. However, and I say this as someone who intermarried, this is not an experience that can be generalized to the entire intermarried population. Ultimately, my wife moved from non-Jew to Orthodox Jew (and I became observant too) - so I've seen things on both sides of the fence, and many places in between. Yes, there are intermarried families who are engaging in Jewish life, which should be encouraged. Yes, there are families who are raising Jewish kids even where the non-Jewish spouse has not converted. However, there is simply no question that, all things being equal, a house where both spouses are engaged in Judaism and are both Jewish (whether by birth or by conversion) is going to create a stronger Jewish environment than where this is not the case.

I know of many people who grew up in intermarried families and are today fully engaged in Jewish life, and I know of many people who had a full yeshiva education and are today distanced from Jewish life. If we draw the conclusion that Shannon wants us to draw by following anecdotal examples, then I could easily make the case from these people I know that the best way to ensure Jewish continuity is to intermarry and to avoid serious Jewish education. Obviously, that is ludicrous. Just as it's ludicrous to formulate Jewish policy based on the statistical exceptions.

Incidentally, why does the Jewish Week go out of its way to portray the intermarried families where no conversion takes place as the "success stories"? We get regular articles from Julie Weiner from this point of view, and then articles like this. Where are the articles from converts, from intermarried families who have become Jewish families? There are many of them. Isn't the Jewish Week missing something by ignoring this part of the community? Aren't our famlies - those who completely transformed themselves into Jewish families - the real success stories that the Jewish community should be hearing about? My wife and I are currently writing a book about our experience simply because we have met so many families like ours, and yet this phenomenon is virtually ignored by the Jewish media and Jewish community. Conversion is only appropriate for those who find within themselves the need to do it. It cannot and should not be forced. However, perhaps it's time to start showing the families who started out intermarried but have made a 100% commitment to Jewish life - perhaps it's time for people to see what the possibilities are, not just what's sometimes possible (although not probable) where the family remains intermarried.

A thank-you to Shannon for her brave, personal, and insightful comments. Shannon’s story is one that I see every day as a Jewish teen educator. Unfortunately, it is the continuous handwringing about “continuity” and judgments placed upon interfaith families that turn people off to the beauty of Jewish tradition and community. Openness and a focus on meaning-making are the ways to build a more vibrant Jewish community, rather than an obsession with demographics and boundaries.
Great piece, Shannon. An honest appraisal of your Jewish life to date and a sign of hope. Well done.
What a beautiful story. I have always thought that many Italian Americans were decendants of conversos over the centuries. Therefore, Ms. Sarna may certainly have a real Yiddish neshama, known only to God. Nonetheless, the Reform movement has not made a positive impact on the Jewish Community since the German Reformers designed and implemented its thoroughly assimilationist anti-Jewish religious policies. Regarding Hillel, they lost my support when the Reform Hillel Rabbi said Kaddish on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur for the Palestinians killed in Lebanon during the war there years ago. I had been in Israel the summer the Lebanon war started and I knew from experience that it was the PLO that was firing rockets on Israel every day, not the other way around. Israelis died and sat in bomb shelters and Hillel was mourning the loss of Palestinians. How rightous ! Reform Judaism at its finest !!! As the commentors above all state this is not such a simple situation for the Sarna family. Nonetheless, there is a chance that those families who are by miraculous reasons meant to remain Jewish will do so. As I have always believed, God works in mysterious ways, even inspite of the Reform Movement. Accordingly, I encourage the Conservative Movement to strengthen itself to remain as faithful to tradition as possible. There is hope for the future as long as sanity prevails in the Jewish Community.
I'm very confused by this essay. Ms. Sarna notes that her mother didn't convert. Therefore, she is not Jewish. It is nice that she feels an affinity for Jews and Judaism and a connection to Israel, but many Christians feel exactly the same way. I understand that the Reform movement "recognizes" patrilineal descent, but what exactly does that mean? Reform specifically does not recognize the binding nature of Jewish law. So, basically a bunch of people got together and made up and continue to make up new rules that suit them. Maybe a group of people will get together and decide that anyone who eats matzo ball soup every day for one week is Jewish. Will that make it so? Ms. Sarna, according to Jewish law and tradition as it has existed for thousands of years, you are not Jewish. Actions have consequences. When your father made a decision to marry a non-Jewish woman, as wonderful as I'm sure she is, he made an affirmative decision that broke his link and the link of all his descendants with the Jewish people. If that bothers you and you wish to become a Jew, go through the conversion process. Otherwise, please don't complain if the Jewish community views you and your family as "lost" to the Jewish people.
I went on year course in 05-06 it changed everything in my life. I volunteer and work in my jewish community. I am an orthodox convert and I have dealt with many things over the years. This experience truly helped me in a very dark time. hashem puts things out there for you to find a connection. Torah is the solution but that doesnt mean go crazy, there are many ways to grow and a jew will never feel satisfied unless s/he is continually growing.
I grew up like you and like many other typical American Jews...I realized that sure I'd like it if I my own personal interpretation of what Judaism should be (whatever I wanted it to be) was authoritative and authentic. After all social activism and liberalism is fine and good, right?!...I realized that THAT became my religion...I wanted (demanded) people to embrace that and accept me ..Again, just like many other American Jews..But then I found myself alienated from Jews who actually kept the Torah...How could I say "I".was the one representing Judaism when I knew next to nothing about the Torah compared to them??!.... I first thought they were lost ...but then I had to be honest with myself....I was the one that was lost....I turned back and became a Bal Techuva...Its hard to come to the conclusion that anything you are doing is wrong. We Americans just want to be accepted as whoever and whatever we are....This conflicts with the Torah that unambiguously tells us there IS a right and wrong in this world. ....Turn back to what has kept Jews Jewish for thousands of years! It is a Tree of Life to those that hold it close! The more Jews have kept the Torah the more the Torah has kept Jews. Liberal Judaism has failed to keep Jews Jewish.
This is a wonderful piece and thank you for writing it. I grew up with very little Judaism too but became quite connected to the Jewish community during college through Hillel. I went on Birthright and became President of our Jewish Student Union at my university. But after years of having to listen to people like the other anonymous commenter here, my connection to Judaism grew weaker and weaker. I got sick of people, Jewish or not, telling me that I wasn't really Jewish or that I should convert. I was scared when I applied for Jewish programs or jobs. Sadly, this attitude drove me away from the community and today I have almost no connection to it.
Judaism is not a hobby nor a political movement that changes based on a collective vote, nor can you just decide to change it to suit your "feelings" at the time. So many people confuse Judaism with how Protestantism works..The, "if you don't like it then just make up a new movement/religion and take out what you don't like", movement! This is a recipe for catastrophic failure for Judaism. As we have seen and continue to witness. Liberal American Jews have picked the Torah apart so that there is next to nothing left. ... What is really socking is then American liberal Jews look at the current state of their movement(s) and ask ...hmm what went wrong? Wake up! Your emperor is naked! Did you notice that Torah true Judaism is flourishing? Ever honestly look into why? Its so obvious!!!
To Anonymous: when you embrace your Judaism and you know who you are, you are more likely to instill a sense of Judaism and Judaic pride in your children. It is wonderful to see people developing a sense of Jewish self while in college, as many of my friends did. As college kids become adults, they figure out what they want and who they want to be, which includes creating a compatible Jewish lifestyle. I believe as people age, their priorities change, and perhaps their view towards Judaism will too. As someone who is transitioning to adulthood, I can say that I celebrate Judaism through my community-- my friends and my family. However, to say I observe Judaism through the traditional means, such as prayer in synagogue, is an overstatement. There are a few reasons why I feel no pull to any synagogue, but mainly I see it as a dry experience. I can't feel spiritual on demand (Saturday at 10 AM?), and so I seek other more fulfilling avenues to feel my connection to my faith such as shabbat dinner and keeping a kosher home. While there is no guarantee that I will even have kids (IY"H), my friends know I am Jewish, and more importantly, I know that I am Jewish and I feel Jewish.
Fine but, will your grandchildren be Jewish? Unlikely....