Giselle

 

Age: 27

Born: Montreal, Canada

Currently Living: Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York

My cultural background and identity is a big mess because my family’s Indian, people think I’m Spanish but now I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew. It’s crazy.

Read Giselle’s story here.

I grew up not knowing anything about Judaism whatsoever. My family was non-denominational Christian. It was kind of like the cool hip Christians who listen to Jesus punk rock and go on Christian retreats [laughs]. I moved to New York and tried to reconnect with the cool Christian part of New York that hands out the granola bars and uses hash tags. I found it really fake. I had trouble with Christianity so I started looking at other religions.

I moved to New York for acting school and I acted in a Jewish rock musical. The company was run by Orthodox Jews and that’s where I first experienced what an Orthodox Jew was. I asked questions and I started getting interested. I went to a conversion class and the Rabbi said that if I wanted to really learn, I would have to live in a community with other Jews. I decided I was serious so I moved to Teaneck, New Jersey and I boarded in the attic of someone’s house for my conversion, which took about nine months.

I learned four days a week. I learned kashrus (Hebrew: Kosher dietary laws) and Shabbes (Hebrew: Sabbath) and Jewish history and culture and halachah (Hebrew: Jewish law) and Hebrew and davenning (Yiddish: praying). I found a rabbi who works with a lot of BTs—Ba’al Tshuvahs (Hebrew: converts)—and I studied with him for a year. I loved that community and their very spiritual and artistic way of looking at Judaism. Artistic in the sense of the world is beautiful. They see the art and beauty in creation in what Hashem does and how each moment fits together rather than, Oh my gosh you have to wash this spoon because by accident it was used with dairy. We learned all those things, but the information was presented in a spiritual and beautiful way.

There’s no structure, no lesson plan, no “requirements”, or list of things to know. It’s very disorganized. I think it’s on purpose because they’re supposed to discourage converts.

There’s no structure, no lesson plan, no “requirements”, or list of things to know. It’s very disorganized. I think it’s on purpose because they’re supposed to discourage converts. They make it very difficult to meet with them. So you go to see the Beis Din (Hebrew: Jewish court) once a month, once every two months depending on their availability or when they get themselves together if they think you need more time or when they want to see you. It’s a stressful time. You’re waiting. I go into a meeting and they tell you to call and you can’t get ahold of them and then he says to call you again in a month and then he can’t meet with you for another two months. It seems disorganized because it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be something that if you really want to do this, you find every way possible to make it happen. I was persistent and they approved my conversion right before Rosh Hashanah and it was exciting. I was excited!

I was so excited to be a part of a Jewish community and it was discouraging when I first moved to the Heights. Not only am I a convert but it’s more obvious by looking at me. People ask if I’m Sephardic all the time. People think I’m Yemenite. The hardest part was being confident enough with my individuality to just be myself within the community rather than trying to skirt around certain answers to certain questions. I was wishing so much to–couldn’t I have looked just a little Jewish? Couldn’t I have just been White? I felt like a teenager. That’s hard. Is it hard now? It’s not as hard because now I’m part of a Jewish family.

Particularly in this neighborhood, everyone always assume I speak Spanish. If I go to the grocery store, they speak to me in Spanish. My cultural background and identity is a big mess because my family’s Indian, people think I’m Spanish but now I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew. It’s crazy. I wouldn’t want my children to not know about being Indian. I still identify strongly with being Indian.

I met a couple other people who are passionate about theater like my co-founder who grew up religious and is passionate about acting so we decided to create our own opportunities. Too many times I’ve been part of productions with theater companies where they’re too exclusive. I don’t want to be that. We wanted to be a place where everybody could come.

I remember there was a line in a play where I was supposed to be saying, “It’s not fair that I look so Jewish and you”–the other girl who grew up Jewish—“don’t look so Jewish.” I remember that bothering me in the beginning. I can’t play this role. I can’t say this. People are going to say I’m fake! It’s something that’s still really hard because now I‘m Jewish but don’t look Jewish, and I want to play Jewish roles! I feel conflicted about my acting self and feeling like I can play Jewish roles, and the reality that my type is young and Hispanic. I don’t resonate with being a young, Hispanic person. That’s not who I am but it’s who I look like. I have my foot in all these places and I’m not really one thing.

 

Click here for more about Giselle  or here to learn about her theater company.

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DannaAge: 29

From: Kfar Saba, Israel

Living: Park Slope, Brooklyn

I’ve always felt sort of trapped in between cultures whether it’s Russia, Israel, or the US.

Read Danna’s story here.

I was one and a half when my family moved to the US. My mom is originally from Long Island, was in Young Judea growing up and made aliyah (Hebrew: immigration to Israel) for Zionist, secular, idealistic reasons. My dad grew up in the former Soviet Union and was among the first to make aliyah from there in 1978. My dad scoffs at me when I call him “Russian.” Jews living in Russia were not Russian; they were Jewish. It’s what was on his passport and it’s why he had to give up his citizenship and move to Israel.

My parents met at Tel Aviv University and I was born in Kfar Saba. We came here in 1985 but the idea was always to go back. I was raised with this idea that Israel is our home and I felt special because I was born in Israel. I was raised with Israeli videos and Hebrew songs. My home was secular, culturally Jewish. It was not even a question that we would celebrate holidays. We always had a connection with the Jewish community but it was always cultural and not particularly religious.

I went to Habonim Dror’s Camp Moshava and fell in love with it. I really liked the whole kibbutz structure. I was raised to know that a kibbutz was this utopian place. Habonim was a good fit for me and I started learning more about the politics of Israel and the culture and everything. For me, camp was this magical place, it was so sacred. When I was 16, I spent the year in Israel on kibbutz Beit Hashita. The kibbutz was always this thing that had been up on a pedestal in my family, this amazing place. A lot of my “firsts” happened in Israel. I was born there and came of age there.

New York is an amazing place because I’m always running into camp people I haven’t seen in 15 years. Just the feeling of people you know and grew up with walking around. There’s something to be said for belonging to a community. I just have connections from all parts of my life. I’m realizing a lot of my friends are Jewish or Israeli or Russian.

When I’m in Russia I feel really American or Jewish, and when I’m in Israel I feel more American and Russian. As much as Israel is a part of me and who I am, I’ve never been 100% at home among Israelis. But when I’m here I don’t feel American, I feel drawn to these other cultures. It’s like this strange in-between.

My next chapter is moving to Israel after all these years but it’s not going to be easy. I’ve always felt sort of trapped in between cultures whether it’s Russia, Israel or the US. When I’m in Russia I feel really American or Jewish, and when I’m in Israel I feel more American and Russian. As much as Israel is a part of me and who I am, I’ve never been 100% at home among Israelis. But when I’m here I don’t feel American, I feel drawn to these other cultures. It’s like this strange in-between. In Russia, Judaism is just an identity, not a religion or a culture. In the US, it’s mostly considered a religion but for me it’s really just the culture. Sometimes I wonder why it matters so much to me because I don’t identify with so many facets of it but I’ve always been interested in culture in general and so having something to connect to and that history–the only way I’m going to feel emotional at the Kotel is by thinking of all the people over thousands of years who have been going there and my connection to those people rather than any holiness in the stones.

I’m doing a Masters program in Migration Studies at Tel Aviv University. I studied anthropology in college, I think because of the whole betwixt and between thing growing up between cultures. I was always observing from the outside naturally. I’ve wanted to study the anthropology of Israel and specifically immigration because that’s what Israel is and what my story is. That’s always what I was fascinated by, even going back to 6th grade when we had this little orange book about all the different communities in Israel. I’ve always wanted to try living there. I’ve always felt more alive, more engaged when I’m there. It feels more vibrant. You’re in this small country and part of a community and everyone has there own voice and their own say. Here in the States there’s so much going on that you can say, “I’m never going to affect that.” It’s just so much bigger than you and might not even affect you. In Israel things are going to affect you and you’re going to care.

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Jenna WeinbergAge: 24

From: Baltimore, Maryland

Living: Stuytown, New York

This was the beginning of my realization of how little I really understood in this land that I felt like I knew so well.

Read Jenna’s story here.

My parents were born in Baltimore, my grandparents were born in Baltimore and half of my great-grandparents were born in Baltimore. We belong to the synagogue that my grandfather helped found, where my mom was Bat Mitzvah’d and my parents were married. It’s huge with thousands of members, a big stage of a bima, and an organ. Growing up, I went to a Conservative shul, an Orthodox Jewish day school, and a Reform summer camp. I could count the number of non-Jews I knew on one hand. Everything I did was Jewish.

Israel has always been completely intertwined with my Jewish identity. I have this memory of going to Israel for the first time in 8th grade and visiting the Kotel. As I got closer and closer to the wall, I felt hotter and hotter. There was this heat radiating from the wall. The moment I touched it, I burst into tears. I had heard about this place and thought about being there for as long as I could remember. There were so many hands that had touched this wall before and I could feel them all by touching the wall. Ironically, today, after spending significantly more time in Israel, I avoid the Kotel at all costs. Instead, I see it as a source of conflict within the Jewish community and a symbol of an Orthodox monopoly on sacred Jewish sites and practice.

Being a Jewish professional and spending a year in Israel were the most secular times I’ve ever experienced.

Before college I spent a year in Israel with Young Judea Year Course, a secular, Zionist gap year program. I felt proud to spend a year of service to what I had always believed to be my homeland. Yet, the Israel education I received made me feel as if Muslims and Arabs were the enemy. Arabic sounded so scary to me. I already knew that I was going to attend the University of Michigan, which I had heard was a battleground for Israel because it has such large Arab and Jewish communities. I felt that my charge was to be a foot solider for pro-Israel activism on campus.

But I had experiences that year that caused me to begin questioning what it means to be “pro- Israel.” I volunteered coaching basketball in Arab communities in Israel and the West Bank. I wanted to see; I was curious. Before this, I’d never really thought about the West Bank or the people living in it. In my Israel education at my Jewish day school, I hadn’t even seen a map of Israel with the Green Line until my senior year of high school. To me, the whole land was part of Israel and belonged to the Jewish people.

The city of Tulkarem is only about ten miles east of Netanya, but I was in a completely different world that I didn’t know existed. It was my first real people-to-people exposure with Palestinians [without Israeli citizenship]. For the first time ever, I saw Palestinian flags flying in windows and over buildings. Right outside the school where we held our programming, there was a big monument to a suicide bomber. I felt an immediate discomfort and confusion, a pang in my stomach of “This is not my home.” This was the beginning of my realization of how little I really understood in this land that I felt like I knew so well.

After my year in Israel, I went to University of Michigan, where I intentionally sought to develop relationships with a diverse set of peers, particularly outside of the Jewish community. I participated in a Katrina relief Muslim-Jewish Alternative Spring Break and when the topic of Israel came up, I went into “Pro-Israel Defense Mode”, ready to stalwartly defend Israel and win the debate. I began to aggressively input the standard bullet points without waiting for my Muslim peer’s response. Finally, my friend, Malik, in such a calm way, pointed out how quickly I embodied an extremely harsh tone and persona when talking about Israel. I was incredibly embarrassed and decided to shut up and start listening.

Participating in interfaith dialogue was an incredible way to learn more about what Judaism really means to me. Yet, at the same time, I struggled with who I was without the Jewish identity marker. I also started to learn more about the spread of Islamophobia in the US. I had learned from Jewish history how Jews experience anti-Semitism, and still do, all over the world. I became very aware of how Americans and also the Jewish community talk about Islam in increasingly negative ways. As a result, I co-founded MuJew, a collaboration and dialogue group for Muslim and Jewish students on campus. I wanted this group to be a place where we could dispel some of that hatred and mistrust and be allies for one another in our own communities.

As college went forward, I stopped participating in Israel-related things. I felt pretty angry that I had only been taught part of the story. I felt like I was cheated, like I was set up to be this pro-Israel advocate but was completely unprepared for what that meant. I was questioning whether Israel should exist at all as a Jewish state. When I told my parents that I had asked myself this question, they told me I had gone too far – I had crossed their “red line.” My conclusion is that Israel should exist as a Jewish state. But how can you be an advocate for Israel if you’ve never asked yourself that question? If you make an automatic assumption that it should exist and don’t understand why people question that, then there’s no way you can be a good advocate for Israel.

I now work at the New Israel Fund (NIF), which works to support democracy and equality in Israel through grantmaking to grassroots NGOs that make up Israel’s civil society. This fall, I’m going back to Israel as a Dorot Fellow. Israel will always be a huge part of who I am and who I want to be. I want to be a strong part of the Jewish community but I also want to be a strong part of humanity; I’m constantly questioning how to balance these obligations. This year, I’m interested in working to help create more equal opportunities for Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel. I believe that it’s not only important for civil and human rights to support this population, but that the strength of Israel and Israel’s democracy depends on how it treats its minorities. I also see this as an interesting way to balance my “circles of obligation” by working with a non-Jewish population in a Jewish state.

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Aaron Samuels

Age: 24

From: Providence, Rhode Island

Currently Living: Manhattan, NY

They basically said, “You can believe whatever you want but you’re Black and Jewish regardless and you don’t have a choice about that” [laughs].

Read Aaron’s story here.

Rhode Island is small but there were three Jewish communities that I was part of. I had my local temple, the main temple in the city, and my Havurah group, a radical multicultural Jewish cohort. It was always about pushing the concept of Jewish diversity and what that means. I got drama all the time because I was mixed and people would be like, “Oh are you really Jewish? Is your mom Jewish? Were you Bar Mitzvahed?” People were always challenging my Judaism.

My mom grew up in Spanish Harlem in a pretty Orthodox Jewish community. Her experience for the first part of her life was Judaism as sexist and exclusive. It wasn’t something she wanted to be a part of. When she had kids, she came back to Judaism in the Rhode Island community and saw that Judaism is much more than that. I attended my mom’s Bat Mitzvah three years before my Bar Mitzvah. Watching my mom sit in the living room and practice the chants is how I learned the chant for my Haftorah. Seeing my mom go through that process and learn everything was beautiful.

My dad’s not Jewish. My dad’s black and was raised Protestant but he and my mom made a conscious decision to raise me Jewish. They wanted me to have a good moral education and a supportive community and they basically said, “You can believe whatever you want but you’re Black and Jewish regardless and you don’t have a choice about that” [laughs]. Judaism is a culture, it’s heritage, and that’s something that I can’t leave.

That’s like my grandmother. She’s a total atheist and whenever I visit her she tries to convince me that God doesn’t exist. But she still wants to know if my girlfriend is Jewish.

One of the reasons I went to the Washington University in St. Louis was because they have a strong Jewish community and a strong Black community. The Association of Black Students meetings were on Friday afternoons so I’d show up with my Yarmulke on and then walk down to Hillel for Shabbat. It was a statement, but also how I wanted to spend my Friday nights. The community was segregated. There’s Jewish racism and Black anti-Semitism. Those problems are real but those weren’t the people I was friends with, and if they were I would try and sit down with them and have a conversation.

We started a poetry-writing community in college that cut across different communities on campus. That was really important to me. I wanted the group to be multiracial, multi-religious, queer-friendly, etc. – basically as inclusive as possible. We wrote about identity and performed around campus and the city and the country. Being Black and Jewish is at the root of my art. It’s what I write about; it’s what I think about.

You want to know what it means to be Jewish? What does it not mean? It’s engrained in the fabric of who I am. There’s a set of things that I just don’t have a choice about and Judaism is one of them. I could not go to Temple for the rest of my life and I’d still be Jewish. That’s like my grandmother. She’s a total atheist and whenever I visit her she tries to convince me that God doesn’t exist. But she still wants to know if my girlfriend is Jewish.

I believe in choosing to be a good person over the fact that you pledge a loyalty. The most important thing is making the world a better place—Tikkun Olam above all else. I know I don’t believe in everything that is “Jewish” but I do believe that it’s important to be the best version of yourself you can be. I believe in the history and the strong culture of Jewish debate and argumentation and using tension and different opinions as a way to navigate towards truth.

Being Jewish is a framework for viewing the world. It’s one of the lenses I use to process the things that happens to me. It’s taught me to assume multiplicity, to be aware of oppression and preventing it, having a conversation. Few things in life I’ll accept at face value. Even if it feels right, I’m not going to accept it until we have a conversation about it. In that way it’s a framework and it affects how I think. But it’s also a part of who I am, my family and my communities.

There are a lot of problems in the Jewish community. It’s really divided, there’s a lot of racism, a lot of Jew-on-Jew hate. That weakens us. I get that we don’t all have to agree on everything but there’s healing that needs to happen in this community and I’d like to be a part of it. Part of identifying as a Jew is that this is something that I care enough about to fix. That’s what love it. Love is not saying I’ll accept this at all costs. It means you love enough to help it heal. And that’s how I feel about the Jewish community.

Check out Aaron’s new book of poetry, Yalmukes & Fitted Caps.

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Janet HeettnerAge: 64

From: West Village, New York

Living: Upper West Side, New York

If we were having a meat meal, she would bring milk because children need milk. I mean, my grandma was Jewish because she was Jewish because she was Jewish.

Read Janet’s story here.

My dad was a Bronx boy, a first generation American who had a habberdashery store on East 86th Street.  My mom was from Brooklyn. My grandmother was a powerhouse of a businesswoman, but never learned to read. They had a candy store in Howard Beach, and lived there in a large house on the water. In 1929, they ended up giving the house to the mailman for taxes because things were so bad [during the Depression].

My parents are getting married. It’s 1947, right after the war. Everyone was coming home and there’s no real estate available. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows a super who you can schtook a little money and maybe you’ll get an apartment. They ended up with a studio apartment on the corner of Christopher and Bleeker and when I was born moved into a one-bedroom. That’s where we lived. I used to go down as a little girl and play in the street with my friends. There were days where if I went down to go roller skating and forgot my skate key, my mother would throw it out the window. If the ice cream guy came by, my mother would wrap the dime in newspaper and throw it out the window. There used to be little trucks with merry go rounds and ferris wheels and they’d pull up at the corner and you’d call up to your mother and she’d throw down a nickel. There were still pushcarts on Bleeker Street. We’d go to Loews Theater for 35 cents a ticket. We’d go to Washington Square. It was a real neighborhood.

The city is like my biography. When I walk down the streets, depending on the day or the weather, I can be six or sixteen or sixty.

I went to school at The Little Red School House, with lots of children of “Commies.” Little Red had a lot of teachers who had lost their public school jobs from refusing to take loyalty oaths during the McCarthy era. Our teachers had us sit and write protest letters. We supported the Woolworth’s boycotts and civil rights. It was a progressive, very left, liberal kind of world. I was involved with SNCC when Stokely Carmichael said there was no room for Whites, which is how I ended up moving into Vietnam stuff. We started a group called High School Students for Peace in Vietnam. We marched at the various marches. We organized a teach-in and sing-in up at Columbia. We were leafletting at Carnegie Hall for our event and Phil Ochs got out of a taxi. I went over to him as only a 15-year old could and said, “Would you like a leaflet for this concert that we tried to reach you for?” and he looked at it and asked if he could still come and he did!

It felt like the revolution was happening and we were winning! The late 60s, it was heady. There was a sense of power that just isn’t there now, that really we were going to make the difference and change the world and end the war. And we did! It was silly, what did we understand? There was a sense of we would not live the same lives as our parents. That there would be a revolution that would really change everything. And then life moves on. It’s hard to feel that powerful when you’re older. Reality just said that none of it’s that simple. But one of my tropes is that I really believe that people need a religion. I was raised liberal and I’ll be liberal until I die and I think in some ways, that is my religion.

Neither of my parents were religious. My grandparents were of the day. They were retailers so they always worked on Saturday. You just did that. They had a kosher home. You just did that too. But that was really it. My grandmother was anxious to be a Yankee. If we were having a meat meal, she would bring milk because children need milk. I mean, my grandma was Jewish because she was Jewish because she was Jewish. I mean that’s who she was. It wasn’t something we thought about. My husband grew up in Bayside, Queens in one of these ethnic Jewish neighborhoods. The boroughs back in the 50s and 60s were this lower-middle class first generation American Jewish. It had it’s own flavor. That was the world where the jokes would come where white bread was goyishe and rye bread was Jewish. That was that world, which wasn’t mine at all. I wasn’t really aware of which of my friends were Jewish and which were not. It just wasn’t important.  When I had my first boyfriend at 14, his name was Laurence McDonnell Carnahan and my mother was not happy. In a way, through my teens and young adult years, the question of whether I was dating a Jewish guy or not really mattered to my mother. I was shocked. None of it resonated.

After high school I went traveling and I visited a friend on a kibbutz in Israel. There was a guy, there was a job, and the next thing I knew, it was six and a half years later and I was an Israeli citizen. I lived on the Jewish calendar and rhythm. It all started to feel very familiar and comfortable. I felt Jewish the way living in America you can feel Christian—by the calendar of life. It permeated. Shabbat and the holidays permeated, the foods permeated. It wasn’t about a religious identity. When I finally came back from Israel, I found that it was only within a synagogue community that you can hold onto the rhythm of some of this.

When you’re a kid, you feel like cities are somehow static. “This is what New York is like.” It’s only over time you realize how dramatically they change, in very short periods. I have these layers of memories. When my husband was in law school at NYU, we would hang out in the village. When my daughter was born, my friend and I would take our kids to the playground in Abington Square, where I had played as a child. I have that layer. There are days when I can sort of touch different ones. The Upper West Side—when my husband and I started going out, he lived on 79th and West End. I remember being in my late 20s and it’s a Saturday night and I’m going to see him and he’s in Law School! And then as a mother shlepping kids around. I ended up taking history courses at City College when I was in my mid-50s. But I also went to high school on the City College campus so I was 16 years old, sneaking out of school and hanging out in the cafeteria. I was 16 and I was 55 in the same space and had such a difference sense of it. When I was 16, underneath the subway at 125th street was a whole slew of Chinese restaurants and I remember going with friends from camp and that’s where I first tried to eat with chop sticks. The city is like my biography. When I walk down the streets, depending on the day or the weather, I can be six or sixteen or sixty.

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Naftali EjdelmanAge: 27

From: Washington Heights

Currently living: Goshen, NY

At Yiddish Farm, there’s a lot of interesting interactions and culture clash between totally different worlds, from Chasidic and fringe Chasidic to completely secular.

Read Naftali’s story here.

I had an unusual upbringing. Although my family wasn’t particularly religious, and both of my parents speak English fluently, my first language is Yiddish. I spoke Yiddish with my brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends. My mother even started a Yiddish Sunday school for families raising their kids in Yiddish, for children to learn to read and write in Yiddish. My father is an immigrant from Poland who runs a wholesale watch business, and my mother was born in the Bronx and writes for the Yiddish Forward.

In high school I decided to become a teacher. I didn’t think it was practical to teach Yiddish so I became a history teacher. But teaching Yiddish was always my true calling. I founded Yiddish Farm with my friend Yisroel in 2010. People can learn Yiddish much quicker in a Yiddish-only environment. There are many academic programs where students learn Yiddish in classrooms but this is the only program in which students don’t hear any English for an entire month. Because of this, we realized that it wouldn’t be so difficult to create one of the most effective Yiddish programs in the world. And believe that we have. Students that spend a summer at the farm come out reading and understanding Yiddish literature, newspapers, and Yiddish theater, and communicate with native speakers of different dialects.

The vision is a Yiddish speaking community living off the land. We try to get Jews to reclaim Yiddish as an important source of their Jewish identity. Once people discover it, it’s very eye opening for them. Language is very important in terms of who you are. Being Jewish in Yiddish is very different from being Jewish in English. I can’t describe it. It’s very deep, very transformative, very intense. When people learn it, it feels familiar to them. It doesn’t feel like learning a foreign language.

I often find Jewish organizations try to Judaize an activity that isn’t inherently Jewish by giving it a Hebrew name or coming up with a justification from a quote. At Yiddish Farm we never have conversations like that because we couldn’t be goyish (Yiddish: non-Jewish) if we tried. It’s very organic. It’s not 100% organic because obviously we could be speaking English to each other, but everyone has contradictions. The question is which contradictions you straighten out and which ones you leave.

Being Jewish in Yiddish is very different from being Jewish in English.

Why a farm? It has opportunities for new experiences. It’s something to do, it’s satisfying, it makes the organization sustainable, it gives a good context for language.  It also connects me to my grandfather, who was active in the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization after the war. The Freeland League was originally founded to solve the problem of Jewish refugees in Europe. Unlike the Zionist movement, which mainly encouraged Jews to move to Israel, learn Hebrew and forget Yiddish, the Territorialists wanted Jews to continue speaking Yiddish as they settled in safe lands around the world. Like the Zionists, the Territorialists had a back-to-the-land ethic that encouraged Jews to farm. After the war, the founding of Israel, and solving the Jewish refugee problem, the Freeland League focused on maintaining Yiddish language and culture through settled agricultural and Yiddish speaking communities in New Jersey. My grandfather was active in this movement. As a kid, his father told him, “We’re going to have our own territory and everyone’s going to speak Yiddish and work the land.” My grandfather grew up with that dream and now I’m revisiting my grandfather’s vision and the generation before him.

We now have a very diverse network. At Yiddish Farm, there’s a lot of interesting interactions and culture clash between totally different worlds, from Chasidic and fringe Chasidic to completely secular. Our shoichet (Hebrew: butcher) is a hardcore Chasidic Rabbi who doesn’t speak any English. There are secular Yiddishists and people who look like you or me but are from the fringe Chasidic world. We had a family participate with one kid who was 11 years-old and an 83 year-old man from Santiago, Chile. We had a 15 year-old Chasidic cook who listened to Rihanna and Celine Dion in the kitchen and translated them into Yiddish. There are Chasidic native speakers and the secular speakers who studied in universities. There are different dialects with real differences, big ones, but at Yiddish Farm, we try and make sure people understand all dialects, which almost ends up forming its own, new dialect. We’re creating new contexts for Yiddish. It feels really big, even when we’re only a couple of people. We feel like something big is happening. It’s very powerful.

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DSC_0702Age: 24

From: Long Island, New York

Currently Living: Astoria, Queens, New York

I had this insane moment of realization of the concept of coming “Out of Egypt.” Jews came out of Egypt. We were refugees. And now I’m here in Israel helping these non-Jewish, African refugees come out of Egypt and into Israel.

Read Abbey’s story here.

I grew up in a small town on Long Island going to public school and a conservative, egalitarian synagogue. My family’s very involved in our synagogue. They’re very pro-women being in the forefront of religion so I was raised with confidence and pride in being a Jewish woman.

I wasn’t very involved Jewishly in college. The Hillel was Reform and I was really turned off when they purposely took out the prayer for Israel during a service. Even when I’m not feeling Jewish, I’m always feeling pro-Israel. The Hillel was too Reform for me, but Chabad was too religious for me so I was not very involved with Jewish things in college. Regardless of not feeling super Jewish in college, I still wanted to go to Israel again after graduation so I signed up for WUJS through MASA. I interned with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) as the Volunteer/Intern and Tutor Coordinator. I interviewed potential volunteers, interns and tutors and placed them where they were needed in various positions throughout the organization. I also chose to sit at the reception desk because I wanted to talk to people, our clients and volunteers, and really get to know everyone.

Every year for Passover, ARDC has a refugee seder where they retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. I had this insane moment of realization while researching for this seder of the concept of coming “Out of Egypt.” Jews came out of Egypt. We were refugees. And now I’m here in Israel helping these non-Jewish, African refugees come out of Egypt and into Israel. It just made sense for my Jewish identity and my identity with Israel, realizing that this can be a safe haven for people who aren’t Jewish.

My Jewish identity in Israel wasn’t so religious; it developed more through working with the African refugees and asylum seekers. It was about connecting to this idea of what it means to have a homeland. The idea of a homeland is a concept I thought about a lot. Like, where do I live? I live in the United States but it’s not my homeland. But these refugees recently—in the last month, or year, or five years—were forced to leave their homes because of religious, ethnic, political, gender persecution. They can’t go back to their homeland.

My Jewish identity in Israel wasn’t so religious; it developed more through working with the African refugees and asylum seekers. It was about connecting to this idea of what it means to have a homeland.

 Right now, Jews are really lucky to have Israel as our home. Even if we don’t need it, it’s there. Regardless of how I feel about their politics, their relations with neighboring countries, or what’s going on with the Palestinians, I still love it. For better or for worse, Israel’s my homeland and I will fight to make it the best it can be.

I see the core of Judaism as helping your neighbor when they need it. My ancestors were refugees searching for a homeland, who needed help and were given the help of countless people along the way. I think of the righteous gentiles during the Holocaust who risked their lives to save people who were being persecuted. At first, that was it, the thought that my ancestors went through this. But I’m also a citizen of the world. I also live on this planet. Being Jewish means that you embrace others in need, you help them. You choose right.

Before, I had wanted to be a school psychologist, but now I’m looking into becoming a clinical psychologist specializing in refugee trauma. I’d love to go back to Israel and continue fighting for rights of the African asylum seekers there, but the problem is totally global. It’s all people who need a place to call home. I think there’s a lot of potential for connecting a global Jewish community. When I did MASA we had people from all over the world who were Jewish. Why isn’t there some sort of Jewish youth council? We know what the issues are and we have a lot of great ideas to share with each other. I think there needs to be younger generation of international people who come together and discuss problems and solutions on a global scale.

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I am seeking a progressive Orthodox community of those who are committed to seeing halacha (Hebrew: Jewish law) as part of Jewish observance, but integrated with open values and world outlook.

Age: 34

From: London, England

Currently Living: Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York

I am seeking a progressive Orthodox community of those who are committed to seeing halacha as part of Jewish observance, but integrated with open values and world outlook.

Read Samuel’s story here.

I grew up in London.  It was an orthodox and traditional Jewish community, built around the home, family, and school. The default position was that you were keeping a halachic (Hebrew: Jewish law) Judaism and that was very detailed from a very young age.

After high school, I went to yeshiva in Israel for two years. Studying in Yeshiva was a right of passage, more of an expectation that a decision. The only question was where. When I came back to England, I studied Theology at Cambridge. I was absolutely convinced that having studied Jewish texts, I should be spending my time broadening my knowledge about other faith traditions. I was intrigued. I saw that the same questions I had about my own faith were reflected in the writings of others about their own. Gradually, I no longer saw myself as being duty-bound to keep the laws which had become second nature to me over time. I came to the belief that a person could choose whether religion was for them or not and could decide on the basis of reason and context as to which laws they wanted to keep. This new outlook affected my life deeply, it affected my marriage, it affected my core. It has affected my desire to teach my children different values than the ones I grew up with—values of personal autonomy, that community is a place where you ultimately should feel most self-actualized and if you don’t, then you are not duty-bound to remain there. That a person has a deep drive towards fulfillment and as long as you move softly through the world and think of others as well as yourself, then you have the opportunity to see community building from a place of joy and celebration rather than self-judgment.

My work in interfaith relations is primarily in Jewish-Muslim bridge-building but it’s not just about religion. It’s more nuanced than that. It’s also about culture. It’s about outlook. It’s about listening carefully to other people’s stories and narratives. As a rabbi, I want to help change Jewish-Muslim relations one relationship at a time.

My practice now is varied. I do lots of text study. I have varied prayer practice during the week, sometimes I go to the Synagogue, sometimes I go for a walk or go to the park to meditate. I go to Synagogue every week. There are Shabbat afternoons when I sometimes go to the Metropolitan Museum. I invite people to come with me. We’ll choose four or five paintings and will take a couple hours to talk about them.

I’m in NY studying at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Bronx. I interviewed in 2002 at the same seminary but it wasn’t the right time for me. Now a decade later, I have different goals. I’ve had an art career and  was involved in interfaith work. Now my goals are to train as a rabbi to use that position and platform to address interdenominational faith relations. I see myself also as a rabbi integrating arts and religion in the context of community-building, creating communities around the integration of the arts. The arts are not denominationally or culturally bound; they’re open and effervescent.

For me, being Jewish means being part of a people. I think that’s the word I’d use. It speaks to the core of my identity. I have a very strong connection to The Shul. When I say shul, I mean the shul I grew up in. For me, that has that kind of very full and thick identity as “this is where I was birthed as a young Jew.” So that’s what it means to me. It means Synagogue community, it means home, it means school.

I am seeking a progressive Orthodox community of those who are committed to seeing halacha as part of Jewish observance, but integrated with open values and world outlook. I think the Jewish world needs Orthodox women rabbis. I think that alternative lifestyles need to be given full rights within Jewish tradition, and if this means reinterpreting foundational Jewish texts then that’s what we have to do. We need wider laws surrounding how Jews interact with non-Jews in terms of conversion and social engagement. When I say Jews and non-Jews, I don’t mean just broadly but also specifically. My work in interfaith relations is primarily in Jewish-Muslim bridge-building but it’s not just about religion. It’s more nuanced than that. It’s also about culture. It’s about outlook. It’s about listening carefully to other people’s stories and narratives. As a rabbi, I want to help change Jewish-Muslim relations one relationship at a time.

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Age: 36

From: Woodstock, NY

Currently Living: DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY

I kept my identities separate. I was White and Jewish at home, and then I had this Black identity when I was away at college and I wouldn’t really bring the two together.

Read Lacey’s story here.

I grew up in a New York White Jewish family. My father’s side came from Russia. My mother’s side is Romanian and Russian. Both my grandparents and parents were from Brooklyn. I was raised in a Jewish home that was very much non-denominational. High Holiday, Passover Jews. We never did Shabbat. We went to Synagogue on Yom Kippur, we did Passover, we lit the candles on Hanukkah.

Growing up it was confusing. There was this idea of feeling different and not knowing why and not feeling good about feeling different. I found out at the age of 18 that my biological father was Black. I was both relieved and confused. I was relieved to know why I looked the way I did and who I actually was, but there was a decade of confusion of what my connection to my family was and how to navigate having a dual identity. I think it’s a tricky thing in the Jewish community. How do you build a community that’s unified but also recognizes and embraces difference? In the same way that communities struggle with that, I as an individual struggled with that.

In New York it’s like Choose Your Own Adventure Judaism.

When I got to college, I started exploring my Black identity. I kept my identities separate. I was White and Jewish at home, and then I had this Black identity when I was at college and I wouldn’t really bring the two together. When I was in graduate school, I was thinking about how I was keeping these identities separate. I wanted to explore how I could change that and integrate my own identities. I started researching diverse Jews around the world, particularly Jews of Color. At the same time I was becoming a film maker. I really wanted to do a project around exploring my own Jewish identity and figuring that out. The film I made really follows that process. It’s called Little White Lie.

Doing that film led me into doing more broad Jewish diversity work. For me, I grew up with Judaism from a very New York, Eastern European perspective. I felt like in order to integrate my own identity, I had to expand my own idea of what being Jewish was. I went into doing this work with the desire to change my own idea of what it meant to be Jewish. Being connected to Bechol Lashon really did that for me. It’s one thing to know something intellectually, and also to really connect to it. It’s less about my day-to-day personal connection, and more about how it has allowed my concept of what being Jewish means to evolve and expand. I think it’s important that your idea of what it means to be Jewish expands for everyone, and I think it had to expand for me.

When I say that I’m Jewish, for me it’s who my family is and what I was born into. There’s something to be said for becoming who you want to be or who you are, but there are also some things that you inherit. I definitely inherited my Judaism. For me in this interesting way, it’s more of a family thing than a community thing. When I meet other people who are Jewish, I know they’ll relate to certain things but it’s not in and of itself a big bonding thing for me.

I also like the historic approach, that Jewish holidays and traditions are connected to the realities of our lives, whether it’s the harvest or slavery. I feel like there are themes relevant to today, and not just to Jewish people. I also appreciate the intellectualism behind Judaism, and the encouragement to question and to think and to ponder. I think my own Judaism is somewhat privileged in the sense that I’ve always grown up in a place where I was accepted and respected, and in New York it’s like Choose Your Own Adventure Judaism. I think if I lived in a place where it wasn’t like that, I’m not sure I would necessarily still be as connected to it as I am now.

More than anything, I want the Jewish community to be less scared. For a good reason it has been. We’ve triumphed in the face of a lot of issues and persecution and that’s really amazing, but at the same time I wonder how we can move past that. That culture of fear isn’t necessarily healthy for us to move forward with.

I really believe in life as a process and you need to engage in it to move forward. For me, that’s what I needed to deal with and figure out. I think we’re constantly working things through and constantly evolving. I haven’t figured it all out but I’ve taken steps forward.

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Shula Smith Age: 21

From: Philadelphia suburbs

Currently living: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

I keep kosher and go to synagogue and I notice when it’s Friday night and I go to Israel and trace my lineage to Moses and have Exodus as the national narrative and I eat bagels and hate gefilte fish and I feel guilty about gossiping…all these things are part of being Jewish.

Read Shula’s story here.

I grew up in the Suburbs of Philadelphia, in Lower Merion, what some may refer to as a modern day shtetl. My family is super Jewish. Well, my dad is not Jewish. It’s never been a problem, him being Catholic but when I try to talk to him about his beliefs, like, “Do you think it’s a problem that Jesus is coming as the Messiah and your daughter’s Jewish?” And he’ll be like, “We know that Jesus loves everyone and when he comes, he’s not going to kill all the Jews.” That’s fair enough. I grew up in an observant but non-Orthodox family. We went to synagogue every week, had shabbat dinners, celebrated the holidays, kept kosher. My parents recognized the value of a religious upbringing and that people can choose their own path.

I went to summer camp at Camp Galil of the Habonim Dror youth movement. I’ve spent 12 summers there. There were kids there from all different backgrounds and it fostered a really different Jewish identity for me. Habonim Dror is a Zionist youth movement and so through Israel, I did a lot of identity searching. Habonim is into challenging relationships and trying to work things through. Peoplehood was also a big thing. Saying you’re Jewish because your mother’s Jewish and your grandmother’s Jewish and her mother’s Jewish and you are inherently connected to all Jewish people on Earth, and you probably don’t look the same or speak the same but you have a language in common, a theoretical home in common. That existed at home but no one had said to me: “you don’t need to not keep kosher or go to synagogue, it doesn’t mean you’re not Jewish.” At camp I learned that no one’s more Jewish than someone else. We tend to think rabbis are more Jewish than bagel Jews. But that doesn’t exist. It’s not real. A lot of things were said openly that I had never really thought about.

It’s not that I’m just going to synagogue. I’m trying to create a community. It’s not just that I’m running programming for Jewish children, I’m trying to empower our next leaders. I don’t go to meetings because I love them or teach Hebrew because I need a job. It’s a commitment I’ve made. Nothing’s at its face value.

I took a gap year in Israel before college with Habonim Dror. We lived on kibbutz and taught English in schools, trying to sneak in values-based education. After that year, I had way more questions about Israel. Before, my Zionist identity was eating popsicles in Israel when I was little, the smell that comes out of the ice cream freezer in the kol bo corner stores, and once I puked on the way to Masada. But during that year, I asked questions and I talked to people and I didn’t realize how much of a right I have to ask questions.

Since starting college, I’ve been really involved in the Jewish community. Especially at NYU, all we’re trying to do is find community. I was the Education Chair at Hillel. I’m the president of J Street U NYU. I run Indie Minyan, an traditional egalitarian minyan on campus. I also have an outreach internship with Hillel and I teach Hebrew school.

I keep kosher and go to synagogue and I notice when it’s Friday night and I go to Israel and trace my lineage to Moses and have Exodus as the national narrative and I eat bagels and hate gefilte fish and I feel guilty about gossiping…all these things are part of being Jewish. I feel Jewish in every sense of the word. Judaism isn’t something on the side for me; I’ve created a holistic Jewish lifestyle. It’s a choice you make, a commitment to a people and an outlook. So it’s not that I’m just going to synagogue. I’m trying to create a community. It’s not just that I’m running programming for Jewish children, I’m trying to empower our next leaders. I don’t go to meetings because I love them or teach Hebrew because I need a job. It’s a commitment I’ve made. Nothing’s at its face value.

The Jewish community needs to move forward. We need to trust youth to make informed decisions about Israel. We need more young college-aged Jewish people committed to education activism. We need to move beyond denominational Judaism. The Conservative movement is dying and the Reform movement is dying and everyone’s dying except for the Orthodox community and how are we going to change that? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think it has to do with Conservative schools and Reform schools and synagogues. We need mutual recognition of people with different tenants. My focus is on strengthening the non-Orthodox community but when I think about the different spectrum that exists within the non-Orthodox community, it’s so much more than conservative/reform/renewal/reconstructionist/whatever you want to be. I don’t know if breaking those down will change everything, but it will give people more room to explore their Jewish identity in more productive and less divisive ways.

What if Jewish schools weren’t affiliated with any specific movement? What if the school said, “Listen. We’re all Jewish. We observe and celebrate in really different ways and we’re going to go on a journey over the next four years to figure out what that means and how you want to be Jewish.” And it would be hard for parents but maybe our future would look a little bit brighter if we changed the way we separate ourselves. Maybe we would grow more effective Jewish leaders. Not to say, “This is Judaism light and you can do whatever you want” but to say “I’m going to challenge you to actively engage in a process where you figure out what it means to be Jewish and how that works for you and I’ll support you along the way and I’m going to question you and make demands of you” and at the end of the day, if we do it well, the product will be kids saying, “I want to be Jewish. This is how I want to be Jewish. This is how I’m going to change the world because of that.”

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Adena KozakAge: 30

From: New Jersey

Currently Living: Riverdale, Bronx, NY

When I was growing up, I never told anyone I danced Ballet.  Because I was Orthodox, it was socially unacceptable. It wasn’t something that was done. It was a completely separate part of my life that I couldn’t reveal. There was my world as a dancer and my world as an Orthodox Jew. That’s how it was for me and how the community perceived it: “This is the dance world. The dance world is an inappropriate world. This dance world is not the Orthodox world.” But it is. That doesn’t have to be a dancer and that doesn’t have to be dance.

Read Adena’s story here.

I grew up in a liberal modern Orthodox community. My mom didn’t cover her hair and she wore pants but we kept Kosher and Shabbas. I went to Jewish day school at Moriah and I went to camp Hillel in the summer. I didn’t really think about my Jewish identity; it was just who I was.

After high school, I went to Israel for the year to learn in seminary. I became more knowledgeable about Judaism. It changed the way I identified; I consciously identified. I decided that I didn’t want to follow the same path as my parents, who just followed how they were raised. We’re the third generation of Holocaust survivors so it’s a different kind of upbringing. In my experience, we’re less attached, more open-minded.  My parents were adamant about making sure that traditions were kept, but they didn’t necessarily relearn it on their own terms. It was something they carried with them culturally and traditionally from their parents. My family and my peers are more intellectual, torah-learning modern orthodox. We learn skeptically and integrate the modern world into our learning and live by that as opposed to living in society with traditional values roles like my parents. After seminary, it was about trying to really integrate learning into my life, which is something I’d never experience before.

The part of Judaism I feel most connected to doesn’t exist yet, which is the performing arts in my community. It’s just not there yet.

I’ve always been passionate about dance. I’ve always been a dancer and singer. I’m a performer but I didn’t feel like I could pursue my art professionally because I wouldn’t compromise my personal values or values from Orthodox Judaism by being in the entertainment industry, which involved things I wouldn’t do in terms of Shabbat, kosher, modesty, partnering, choreography. While living in Israel, I was in a dance company, but I quit and decided to make a talent agency to promote the performing arts for women-only audiences with the values of Orthodox Judaism. I put on a program like American Idol for Women called Rotzah Lehiyot Cochav? (Want to be a Star?). It was an amazing surge of energy and passion and doing and recruiting and it was phenomenal.

Now I’m working on a similar project here in New York called the Jewish Women’s Talent Agency (JeWTA). This is a more mature experience. I know how to define myself much better. I know what I’m doing and what I’m not doing. With JeWTA, if an Orthodox woman wants to be a professional dancer, she’s going to be a professional dancer and make money just like anyone else. So would a singer or an actress. I want for this to become  a part of mainstream society.

I don’t know how much of an impact this will have, but I want it to have a positive influence and change the way we see performance and performers. I want  the performers in the agency to be role models with values consistent with Orthodox Judaism like modesty, kindness, and honesty. Performance already has such an impact on the world. Why not have it be a positive impact that promotes a good sense of self and role models for the younger generation?

The part of Judaism I feel most connected to doesn’t exist yet, which is the performing arts in my community. It’s just not there yet. There isn’t the openness to see the arts as a point of connection into the community. There isn’t the openness to embrace the creative side of artists who are a part of the Orthodox community. The values and boundaries of the Orthodox community attract a certain type of person who is intellectual and learned and not necessarily physical. But not everyone connects on an intellectual level. The community doesn’t necessarily appreciate that there are many people not being reached or who are being turned away because of this.

When I was growing up, I never told anyone I danced Ballet.  Because I was Orthodox, it was socially unacceptable. It wasn’t something that was done. It was a completely separate part of my life that I couldn’t reveal. There was my world as a dancer and my world as an Orthodox Jew. That’s how it was for me and how the community perceived it: “This is the dance world. The dance world is an inappropriate world. This dance world is not the Orthodox world.” But it is. That doesn’t have to be a dancer and that doesn’t have to be dance. For me, it’s not even about dancing anymore. I don’t even dance. To me it’s about expanding the perceptions of a community to embrace a completely different sense of self.

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DanteAge: 24

From: Colorado and California

Currently Living: Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY

I felt uncomfortable for a while because people always ask roundabout questions. They’d be like, “where are you from?” “California.” It would almost be better if they just asked the question: “Are you Black?”

Read Dante’s story here.

The condensed version of my story is that my mom’s family is Jewish and from Germany, my dad’s family is Black and Baptist, and both my parents are non-practicing. My great-grandparents were German Jews and they came to America before the war. When they were in the process of starting a family, the Nazis came to power in Germany. They decided not to tell their kids that they were Jewish. In case the Nazis came to the United States, their children wouldn’t have to lie because they wouldn’t know any better. My grandma didn’t find out she was Jewish until she was eight, but I never knew. I came to Judaism on my own. The first time I heard Kabbalat Shabbat at NYU, all the hair on my body stood on end. I got goose bumps. I’d never experienced anything like that before in my life. I started going to services every Friday. After I started getting engaged in Judaism, I asked my mom if it would be weird if I converted to Judaism. She said, “Oh, you don’t have to convert—you already are Jewish.” I would’ve converted. I feel religiously attached to Judaism.

When I first became involved in the Jewish community at NYU, it was really hard for me. I felt uncomfortable for a while because people always ask roundabout questions. They’d be like, “where are you from?” “California.” It would almost be better if they just asked the question: “Are you Black?” I was once at a synagogue and a woman asked if I was an Ethiopian. It wasn’t just that there were no Jews that looked like me at the Bronfman Center. It’s a very Ashkenazi space. I had to explain myself a lot, but it became easier. The more I felt secure in my Jewish identity, the less I cared. I feel like you could put me in pretty much any synagogue space for almost any service and I would feel comfortable there. That made me feel ok with the knowledge that I didn’t grow up having Passover seders at my house every year or going to my relatives for Rosh Hashanah.

Look at Israel. Jews from everywhere have come together and immigrants are still being told that their Judaism is wrong. Frecha means happiness in Moroccan Arabic, and Ethiopian Jews are wearing sheitels and dressing like Polish women from the 16th century. It doesn’t make any sense.

After I graduated, I went to Israel for a year. Before college, I couldn’t have told you where Israel was. I’d heard of it but it was very abstract. When I got to college, I got all of these messages from Bronfman Center about how “Israel’s amazing, you love Israel, Israel belongs to you.” Once I started studying Middle Eastern studies, I learned things about Israel that were hard to hear—I took it really hard. I cried about it. I had a hard time reconciling, so I decided to go to Israel to see what it’s like there for myself. I did a yearlong service program called Tikkun Olam. I lived in Jaffa and focused on Jewish-Arab coexistence. I feel very attached to Israel now. It’s not just like, “Oh, I’m Jewish and this is the Jewish home.” I lived in Israel, I speak Hebrew. This feels like a place that was home to me.  Seeing the complexities in Israel, the good things and the bad things was really important, but it also removes it from its mythical space.

When I say I’m Jewish, I feel attached to it through these practices that are both so old but have changed and evolved over the centuries. We don’t do things the way we used to do them but there’s still this sense of continuity. I love how much we’re encouraged to question what we’re doing, that it’s good to evolve and re-examine why you do things and what’s important.

I think a problem facing most Jewish communities is its insularity—an unwillingness to look outwards or even an unwillingness to look upon your own community from a step outside. It’s hard for me to sit back when you’re talking to people about what other kinds of Jews do. If you’re in an Ashkenazi house and it’s Passover, you don’t understand that there are Jews all over the world who aren’t having gefilte fish and matzah ball soup right now. I understand this is what you do, that it’s your tradition, and I’m excited that you’re excited about it, but obviously Moroccan Jews in Casablanca are not eating matzah ball soup. I think in our broader culture, there’s a lot of eurocentricity about mainstream Judaism. Look at Israel. Jews from everywhere have come together and immigrants are still being told that their Judaism is wrong. Frecha means happiness in Moroccan Arabic, and Ethiopian Jews are wearing sheitels and dressing like Polish women from the 16th century. It doesn’t make any sense. You have a long, equally valid history in the way your community has done things and it’s been invalidated in the blink of an eye and it hurts me. We need to recognize that there’s not one way to be Jewish.

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331331_529826517414_122524164_oAge: 25

From: Outside Washington DC

Currently living: Washington Heights, Manhattan

I like wearing tsitsis because I like being identifiably Jewish. Even though people don’t really get it. They’re like, ‘What kind of Jewish is she? Probably some crazy gay reform Jew.’

Read Sarah’s story here.

I grew up going to Sunday school at a Reform synagogue in DC. I was one of the kids who inspired them to make an 11th and 12th grade. I really liked going. My family didn’t keep kosher, but we did all the major holidays and shabbes occasionally, and we went to shul a couple times a year.

In college, I wanted to learn more about Christianity. I thought it’s really influential and important in the world and literature and politics, so I joined a Christian Bible study freshmen year.  I made it really clear to them that I’m Jewish and why I was there and they were fine with it. They prayed out loud. Everyone closed their eyes and talked to Jesus in totally casual language like he’s sitting right there next to you. It wasn’t liturgy, it was “I’m really stressed about this test coming up and it’s hard for me to study because my roommate’s mom is sick…” I was like, what?! This is how people pray? They just talk? Jews don’t do that. I’d never really imagined how you pray. What does it mean to have a relationship to God that you pray to? They did it out loud and that was crazy and really big for me.

I asked them a lot of questions like “Why do you believe in God? What do you pray for? How does it affect your everyday life to be religious?” They ended up asking me those same questions and I didn’t really have answers. I had my one story that I’d been raised with: when my mom was 15 and was getting confirmed, she went to the Rabbi and said, “I’m not sure if I believe in God. Is it wrong for me to be doing this?” He said, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God. What matters is that you act the way God would want you to act if there were a God.” Be a good person. We can all figure out what God wants, can’t we? So that’s what I told them and what I believed and what guided my non-belief in God.

But that wasn’t really good enough when I started thinking about it more. It didn’t really explain why Judaism had all these other laws besides those bein adam l’chavero (Hebrew: between people) and I was missing all of that. I wanted that. So partly because it was freshman year of college and partly because of this Bible study that was asking me all these questions, I was extremely anxiously engaged in questions of life, while figuring out my sexuality. I realized that I was only living the life that my parents had created for me. I needed to scrap it all and figure out what life is about. The whole freshman year thing.

I started learning Hebrew. I decided that if I wanted to learn anything about Judaism, I needed to speak Hebrew to read the original texts. I loved Hebrew. It was amazing. I would sit there and learn a word and would think of some song I knew from growing up. I learned harbeh (Hebrew: much, many) and would think of shalom rav. A lot of peace? I would have these realizations every day. It was emotional. It was tied to something. All this stuff I knew suddenly became meaningful.

Everyone closed their eyes and talked to Jesus in totally casual language like he’s sitting right there next to you. It wasn’t liturgy, it was “I’m really stressed about this test coming up and it’s hard for me to study because my roommate’s mom is sick…” I was like, what?! This is how people pray? They just talk? Jews don’t do that. I’d never really imagined how you pray. What does it mean to have a relationship to God that you pray to?

I went to Israel on Birthright over winter break and when I came back, I didn’t want to be in school. I wanted to learn about Judaism. I didn’t really know how to do that, but I knew I was excited about it. I ended up going to Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in Israel. Being around religious people and feeling comfortable in that is foreign and really scary for a lot of people. I got the exposure. I heard about how flossing is asur (Hebrew: prohibited) on shabbas. I processed that it’s kind of crazy. I had entered into this whole going to Israel thing speaking about it anthropologically. I was like, “I want to see what this Jewish life thing is that I had no exposure to growing up. I don’t believe in God, I just want to see these crazies and figure it out.” I realized it felt good, it answered some of my questions, it raised questions. I liked it. I gained literacy. I knew the language. I became familiar with the concepts.

When I came back from Israel, I felt like I was living this divided life. I’m queer and liberal and a student at Brown University, but I’m also one of three Orthodox kids? I met Jonah Fisher, who was very influential for me. He was from this world that I couldn’t really believe existed. I was like, “You’re Modern Orthodox? You don’t look like these Modern Orthodox people. Like, you seem to keep halacha (Hebrew: Jewish law), you’re all academics, you’re egalitarian and liberal…? I don’t get it.” This was a world combining things that I had kept separate.

I was going to Jewish events and our discussions often turned to whether I believed in God. I’d get emotional about it. I didn’t quite know why but my eyes would get sort of wet. One night I asked my friend, “What’s going on with me?” She said, “You have a relationship with God, you just haven’t realized it yet. I saw it in your eyes when we first started talking.” I burst into tears. She was right! I didn’t realize it. From then on, I was like, “Oh, I have a relationship with God. I don’t know what that is, or what to do with that, or where to go with that.” A lot of it was not having the words or being able to identify what I was experiencing. Which was the same thing with sexuality, which was simultaneous to this whole process. And how weird is it that I went in the two paths I went in, which was letting myself be gay and becoming religious?

I started wrapping tefillin about a year and a half ago, and shortly after started wearing tsitsis. Some people ask about it nicely. Not so many people are mean or aggressive about it. People ask a lot why I don’t wear a kippah. Because they see tsitsis and think, “Oh, you’re doing what men do” and they associate it with a kippah. For me they’re totally different. Sometimes people ask why I do it when I’m not obligated. My answer is that I do think I’m obligated. I’m saying the shema everyday and a big part of that is “bind these things upon your heart and between your eyes.” Half the people in this room are doing it. Shouldn’t I be doing it? Who am I saying this for or to? Why am I saying these words that I’m so machmir (Yiddish: strict) about saying, but I’m not doing it? It doesn’t make sense.

I like wearing tsitsis because I like being identifiably Jewish. Even though people didn’t really get it, they’re like, “What kind of Jewish is she? Probably some crazy gay reform Jew.” A lot of people probably think very weird things. A lot are genuinely curious. People know these strings are Jewish and I like that. I like being able to wear my identity. I remember learning halacha (Hebrew: religious law) about people who sleep in their tsitsis. I was imagining the feeling and desire of wanting to sleep in them. I got this image of being held by God. Another part is accountability to be a good person. You’ll see these and remember to do mitzvot (Hebrew: positive commandments, good deeds). That’s why I wear them out—accountability to myself and to the Jewish people and God.  Tsitsis are all sorts of things.

I sometimes have trouble reconciling Judaism and being a woman and gay. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes there’s stuff I can’t get on board with and I don’t know what to do with it, like whether it’s ok to be in a queer relationship, or egalitarianism in terms of requiring women to pray and do mitzvahs, which hasn’t quite caught on. The public face of the community with which I so strongly identify is not always such a pretty one. And that’s hard. It’s not necessarily the content of the religion or the tradition but how it’s lived out and represented in the world that can be really hard. But I think that I trust it and I buy into the whole thing. There’s definitely a piece of my practice that’s all or nothing. Like if you’re going to be in a relationship with someone, you can’t just do it on Mondays and Wednesdays. You need to commit to it. It’s a pretty intricate and comprehensive system and language. I have strong support being at Hadar and being in Washington Heights but in the future, it will be hard.

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Ruben RaisAge: 25

From: Bogota, Colombia

Currently living: Fort Green, Brooklyn, NY

My year with Kivunim we started learning Heschel. Heschel’s amazing. It freaked me out at first. I was like, “What?! I believe in God again?” He has this whole thing about wonder as a starting point. “Wonder and not doubt is the root of all knowledge.” I’d traveled a lot and you get that feeling when you’re in nature and you start feeling a connection and he put that into words.

Read Ruben’s story here.

The Jewish community is pretty diverse for such a small community. People are from Egypt, Syria, Poland, Russia. My grandparents came from Poland and Russia. In the Jewish community, everyone knows each other. It’s an intergenerational thing. My friend’s parents are friends with my parents and my grandparents. I know people’s grandparents, I know their business. That was nice growing up. There’s a Jewish country club in Bogota–there’s a lot of country clubs in Colombia–and there’s a Jewish one and that’s where I spent my childhood and it was awesome. There wasn’t much content in the Jewish community. Everyone went to Yom Kippur and most people do shabbat, but most people don’t observe shabbat halachically. This happens a lot outside America, these non-observant orthodox communities.

When I was 13, my family moved to Israel. During my cousin’s bar mitzvah, his mother and sisters wore kippot and did Aliyot. It was the first time I saw that. I didn’t really care, but aesthetically I didn’t like it and I’m still kind of weirded out by it. Ideologically, go get em. But it still kind of looks weird to me. Living in Israel was a totally different Judaism that I was exposed to.  That’s when I started to question God and being in Israel made me comfortable with being Jewish and yet discarding the religious side, which I did until maybe two years ago.

One of the coolest things about Judaism is it’s able to maintain itself and its uniqueness and also bring a bunch of stuff in. Eventually stuff is brought in that’s totally not Jewish but becomes it. Like those Charedi dudes who wear black. That’s not Jewish; that’s polish nobility. That’s not in the Talmud. But somehow now it’s Jewish. Can I make salsa a Jewish thing?

Even though there was no religion in it, Judaism was always a constant. It was more of a peoplehood thing. In college, I started moving further back historically. Ok, that’s the conflict. Ok, that’s Zionism. What started as an interest in the Middle East started turning more and more into an interest in Judaism. When I staffed the program Kivunim, it become more clear that Judaism was my main source of identity. It’s not Colombia, Israel, or America. Those three are all there, but really it’s Judaism. Professionally I started thinking about Jewish education.

My year with Kivunim we started learning Heschel. Heschel’s amazing. It freaked me out at first. I was like, “What?! I believe in God again?” He has this whole thing about wonder as a starting point. “Wonder and not doubt is the root of all knowledge.” I’d traveled a lot and you get that feeling when you’re in nature and you start feeling a connection and he put that into words. Studying texts at Hadar opened up a whole spectrum of Judaism as a source of meaning. I hadn’t really been there before in any serious way. I learned that I could find meaning in my life and my community through these texts and they’re engaging and difficult and hilarious and fun. Biblical Hebrew suddenly becomes a part of your life and it’s beautiful.

I’d like to open up this wealth of meaning for people who want to engage with it but are unsure how or haven’t had access to it. A lot of the communities I’ve been a part of are focused on the peoplehood part of Judaism, which is great, like “Yeah, I like Woody Allen and Philip Roth, and that’s what makes me Jewish.” But it’d be nice to also see Judaism more as an exploration of how to live your life. Some other communities are very much about meaning but they forget the culture. You need both or one gets meaningless and the other needs expression. I want to combine them. Have you heard of Larry Harlow? He’s a Jew from Brownsville, Brooklyn who fell in love with Salsa music and went on to become one of the Salsa greats. There’s a huge history of Jews involved in the emergence of salsa music. A lot of the Salsa legends had Jewish musicians in their bands so you get all these albums like Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos. There are Yiddish Salsa songs! It’s pretty cool. Can you make Jewish education out of that? One of the coolest things about Judaism is it’s able to maintain itself and its uniqueness and also bring a bunch of stuff in. Eventually stuff is brought in that’s totally not Jewish but becomes it. Like those Charedi dudes who wear black. That’s not Jewish; that’s polish nobility. That’s not in the Talmud. But somehow now it’s Jewish. Can I make salsa a Jewish thing? The history is there. We just need to revive it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel lately and it’s amazing how big of a word “Israel” is in American Jewish education, yet no one really seems concerned about Jewish education in Israel. So you want to send everyone to Israel to build their Jewish identities but you’re totally unconcerned that most secular Israelis don’t have a Jewish identity? That’s something I’d like to change. I probably want to work in Israel opening up Judaism to Israelis.

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I always tell people, you do not start a Ladino rock band to become rich and famous. You really have to love it.From: Princeton, NJ

Currently Living: Upper West Side, Manhattan, NY

My grandparents and great aunts and uncles spoke Ladino. When I was young, it didn’t cross my mind that we were different but I have distinct memories of visiting an uncle in Florida and all the radio stations in his car being set to Spanish stations. I remember thinking how weird it was because we were this white, Jewish family from New Jersey. I didn’t get it then. I was very young.

Read Sarah’s story here.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Princeton, but it’s very conservative, white-bred, preppy. There’s a large Jewish population there and my parents were part of a Havurah, but I only knew a few Sephardic families. My family is originally from Macedonia and Greece. I didn’t identify as Sephardic outwardly, but we sang different songs with different melodies and ate different foods on Shabbat and holidays—mezzes and spanakopita and Tadlikus.

I had all these questions nobody could answer. When my family came to America, they were escaping the Balkan Wars. They worked hard to be American.  A lot of the old traditions were left behind and as a byproduct of that, Ladino wasn’t passed on to my mother. Foods were passed on and some songs, but everyday language and culture wasn’t. I just felt frustrated and like I had to fight to learn about my culture.

People started coming out, but it was hard to explain. A Ladino rock band?! I never thought anything would come of it. But twelve years later, here I still am.

My search for my Sephardic identity was through my musical training. I was in Israel performing opera and I had a coach there who happened to be Sephardic. In between our opera lessons, he taught me traditional Sephardic songs. When I came back from Israel, I was trying to figure out how to combine my Jewish and musical interests. I never thought I could make a career out of Ladino music. At the time, it was a very different dynamic, not only in the Ladino world but in the world of Jewish music. There wasn’t Jewish mainstream pop music. This was before Matisyahu. While working for the Foundation for Jewish Culture in 2000, I organized a conference called “New Jewish Musics.” We put together the 25 most cutting edge Jewish musicians with 25 most progressive community programmers to see what would happen. I did an exhaustive search and could only find one Sephardic musician, and she was older and doing traditional music, nothing progressive. At the same time, I was so inspired by the explosion in the Klezmer world. Klezmer Punk! Klezmer Rock! Klezmer Funk! You name it, Klezmer was doing it. But I was so depressed that there was no Sephardic counterpart. Two weeks later, I left my job. I thought if no one else was doing it, I had to.

I picked back up my old, dusty guitar and found myself a guitar teacher—Allen Cohen. It sounds like the most Ashkenazi name, but his grandmother was from Greece. It seemed like fate. We started rocking out Ladino arrangements. Before I knew it, we made a rock band and were playing crappy clubs in the East Village. People started coming out, but it was hard to explain. A Ladino rock band?! I never thought anything would come of it. But twelve years later, here I still am.

Now there are a lot of people doing different types of contemporary Ladino music, but I’m still one of the only young musicians who writes their own music. I started writing because I had all these songs in my head and things I wanted to say. For me, my medium is Ladino. It’s so tied into historical memory. I wrote a song called “Chika Morena” about the iconic figure of the morena, the dark-haired gypsy girl, who wanders the earth to find her way back home and all along her ancestors are pulling her back. I can relate to that about my own journey but to be able to tie it into something that’s just so much bigger than yourself is much more powerful.

My mother’s family has a lot of Holocaust history. Greece was the hardest hit country of any country in Europe in terms of the percentage of Jews killed. That has really impacted this compulsion or responsibility I feel to make sure this tradition is passed on. My ancestors fought so hard to keep Sephardic culture alive and I feel like I owe it to them to make sure that their stories aren’t lost.

It’s really important for young people to care about their traditions, not only looking backwards but also looking forwards. Preservation is not only about preserving what already exists. It also means creating new culture so that the culture can continue. A lot of the storytelling in my songs is about cultural preservation. I wrote a song, one of my favorites, called “El Leon Ferido”, The Wounded Lion. I was inspired by a famous 11th century Spanish poet named Samuel HaNaggid. He wrote in Arabic at the time a four-line poem. The English translation is:

When your heart is filled with fear // and you’re standing at death’s door // Just remember the lamp still has light before it’s extinguished// And the lion still knows how to roar.

Sometimes you feel like you’ve lost it all, but you still have that last breath. A lot of people think Ladino culture is dead but we’re still gasping along. I don’t know how long it’s going to continue, but we’re in a much better position now than we were ten years ago. I always tell people, you do not start a Ladino rock band to become rich and famous. You really have to love it. And I do. I used the word compulsion before. I don’t really feel like I had a choice. I think I was meant to do this. I don’t know what else I would do at this point.

For more about Sarah’s music, check out her website.

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DSC_0470Age: 25

From: Pleasant Hill, CA

Currently Living: Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

I’ve always identified as multi-ethnic. My mom is half Korean. I’ve never felt excluded, but have always been aware that being mixed Asian and Jewish made me different from your typical Ashkenazi Jew. Sometimes people try to identify me as part Jewish. I’ve never been comfortable with that. Especially since coming to terms with my Jewish identity, I don’t see it as something that can be divided.

Read Samantha’s story here.

I grew up in a havurah. We joined when I was eight or nine years old. Up until that point, I don’t think I had any conscious realization that I was Jewish. It wasn’t until that time that my parents decided they wanted to raise us Jewish. My dad didn’t like going to Hebrew school or synagogue and my mom’s father was Jewish but was a secular communist. So they both had familiarity and levels of fluency in Jewish thought and culture, but they were not raising us in a Jewish way.

We joined the havurah when we moved from Berkeley to Pleasant Hill. They took us from Berkeley, which is open, tolerant, and diverse, with tons of Jewish influence, and we moved into a really homogenous, white-bread, Christian, Protestant environment. My parents realized their kids would have no concept of their heritage or culture and would grow up like every other white protestant child if they didn’t do something about it.

My parents were founding members of our havurah, Shir Neshamah. They were attracted to its inclusivity and DIY feel. It’s less intimidating. It’s not in a synagogue; it’s in people’s homes. It’s Jewish renewal, but I don’t think we’re strictly Renewal. Our havurah had different influences: Conservative, Reform, and everyone bringing in the rituals they wanted to build. I never realized how cool this was growing up. I thought that was just what being Jewish meant. California and Bay Area Judaism is very different from other parts of America and other parts of the world. Inclusivity. No one is questioned to the validity of their Jewish identity if they choose to claim it. For me growing up, there was never some outside force setting the criteria. There were a lot of mixed couples in my havurah, a lot of Buddhist and hippie influences, alternative medicine and healing. There’s a lot of that in the Bay Area. A lot of yoga Jews, Bu-Jews (Buddhist Jews).

I’ve recently started to think of Korean history as having interesting parallels with Jewish history. Being oppressed and being the other comes from both sides of my heritage, which I think explains my affinity for organizations and movements and people who are actively engaged in anti-oppression work.

After my Bat Mitzvah, I really started being my own individual in the havurah. I was falling in love with Judaism and participating in our discussions. At the same time that I was becoming aware that I was Jewish, I became increasingly embarrassed and afraid of my Jewish identity because it made me different at school. I had zero Jewish friends other than those in the havurah. I didn’t even know of other Jewish kids. Being Jewish was something you hid in Pleasant Hill. I was mocked and becoming subconsciously aware of anti-Semitism. It intensified in high school. I denied it. I’d say, “No, I’m not really Jewish. My family is.” I didn’t want to be affiliated. My junior year I started working at this camp called the Mosaic Project in Berkeley that was all about tolerance, diversity, peace building, and conflict-resolution.  There were other Jewish people working at that camp and that’s when I started feeling more comfortable and embraced my Jewish identity.

In college, my Judaism morphed from something very spiritual and family-based to totally political. After freshman year, I went on Birthright with UPZ. Suddenly my whole Jewish identity had to do with solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It wasn’t just Israel, but specifically the conflict. I did a lot of joint panels with Muslim and Jewish groups on campus and brought in films. I took lots of classes, I studied at the Arava Institute in Israel. And throughout this, I didn’t feel like being Jewish was relevant. None of it was informed, at least consciously, by a religious or spiritual identity.

After college, I decided to go to Israel on Tikkun Olam. I was still in the mode of Jewish-Arab coexistence. The program completely changed my perspective on my Jewish identity. It broadened what I envisioned as my Jewish community. Before it was just me, my family, my havurah, and American Jewish political issues. In Israel, I realized that I’m not just someone who cares about the conflict; I’m part of the American Jewish community. I had never really seen myself that way. Living with people from such different backgrounds, meeting Jews from all over the world, and hearing their experiences made me realize how much is out there that I was missing. I had only conceptualized Jewishness in America as either you’re orthodox or in my havurah. I had heard the term conservative Judaism but I didn’t know what it meant. I got interested in learning more about text and history and different ways of practicing.

I’ve always identified as multi-ethnic. My mom is half Korean. I’ve never felt excluded, but have always been aware that being mixed Asian and Jewish made me different from your typical Ashkenazi Jew. Sometimes people try to identify me as part Jewish. I’ve never been comfortable with that. Especially since coming to terms with my Jewish identity, I don’t see it as something that can be divided.

There’s always this question when dealing with minority groups in the U.S. Being a quarter Korean is not enough to call myself Asian but at the same time, it’s enough to make me not 100% white or Jewish. It’s enough that when people make racist Asian jokes, I feel that visceral feeling that you don’t feel unless they’re talking about you. I’ve recently started to think of Korean history as having interesting parallels with Jewish history. Being oppressed and being the other comes from both sides of my heritage, which I think explains my affinity for organizations and movements and people who are actively engaged in anti-oppression work.

My Judaism is multi-leveled. For me being Jewish means having access to a global community, history, and a set of traditions and teachings and texts and arguments and discussions that inform how I can live my life with meaning. Sure, it has to do also with holidays and who I hang out with and how I identify politically. But to me, at its heart and at its core, my being Jewish has to do with how I find meaning in my life through Tikkun Olam, Jewish community, and my relationship with God. A lot of my desire to remain affiliated with Judaism also comes with a feeling of not wanting it to be stamped out. There have been frightening attempts to stamp it out from racism and anti-Semitism, but also fundamentalist desire to control what Judaism is and push everything else out. That’s also a threat to the survival of Judaism.

The Jewish community needs a bigger tent. People need to accept that there are and will be a lot of ways to practice Judaism and claim Jewish identity. We need to realize that we won’t look the same, our practice won’t look the same and it’s not necessary that we practice together, but that we allow each other that freedom. Jews mixing with other people is not a danger; it’s an asset. We need to find ways to preserve and translate Judaism in mixed families, not resisting it but finding ways to adapt and renew it in ways that make it more accessible to people interested in having it influence their lives in some way.

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DSC_0359Age: 25

From: Central New Jersey

Currently living: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

We were mostly tapped into the Yiddishist secularist stream of Yiddishkeit, which had very big social justice elements. I learned a lot about early unionizing like Workmen’s Circle type of stuff. There are still people in the Yiddish community today who have very much the same flavor. I’m working now at a Yiddish theater company with people who find inspiration for fighting political battles today from Yiddishist stuff.

Read Anna’s story here.

We lived in this small town in a rural area in New Jersey where there wasn’t a Jewish community, but I was sent to a modern orthodox day school. I was less religious than my peers, and it was hard to have people over because our level of kashrut (Hebrew: kosherness). We kept kosher inside the house, but not out of it. At this point in my life, I’m very aware that people draw their own boundaries in their own places. I have a friend whose parents say that everyone to the left of you is a heretic, and everyone to the right of you is a fundamentalist. I like that. There are so many of us who think of ourselves as open-minded but it still often comes down to that. People who don’t keep kosher at home are heretical to me and people who keep kosher at home but also won’t eat out at a vegetarian restaurant, who are they? Are they crazy?! (laughs). But obviously that doesn’t make sense.

I was raised with a mix of Jewish influences. My parents were into Yiddish culture. My mom’s parents were immigrants from Poland and Russia and she really felt sentimental about that world. She just loved that Yiddishkeit (Yiddish: Jewish way of life). And my dad also.That’s definitely stuck with me. Every winter we spent a week at a Yiddish music and culture family festival. We were mostly tapped into the Yiddishist secularist stream of Yiddishkeit, which had very big social justice elements. I learned a lot about early unionizing like Workmen’s Circle type of stuff. There are still people in the Yiddish community today who have very much the same flavor. I’m working now at a Yiddish theater company with people who find inspiration for fighting political battles today from Yiddishist stuff.

I now help organize Mishkan Minyan, an independent minyan that that meets once a month in people’s homes. Part of the idea was for it to be haimish (Yiddish: homey, friendly) and warm. We take turns leading Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv, we eat a potluck dinner, and then there’s bit of learning after. We now get up to 70 people who are mainly 22-26. It’s fun to be with all young people. We have the freedom to start late and go late and have a lot of wine. A big part of Mishkan Minyan for me was about creating a pluralistic Jewish space with inclusivity on both sides, for people who need help with page numbers during davening (Yiddish: praying), and for people who need to think about the eruv (Hebrew: )and the kashrut (Hebrew: kosherness) of people’s food contributions.

The notion of a smaller unit of people who care about each other and share some traditions and take care of one another with this feeling that you have shared roots that come before you and your fates are somehow entwined. We’re a specific generation after the Holocaust and the notion of our fates being entwined is very real to me.

Another big Jewish influence in my life is Hadar. I never studied there, which is what’s so crazy about it. Several people I know went there who were empowered with regard to Jewish texts. The crucial part is that they’re egal, not in the sense of genders studying together, though they do, but in the sense of genders being equal. I realized as a feminist that there’s such a big place for that in Judaism today. When I was young and went to this modern Orthodox day school, I thought I would be modern Orthodox when I grew up, but being a feminist has precluded that. Gender equality becomes more problematic as you age. It makes me aware of the constraints of that world. If your life isn’t butting up against the constraints of an orthodox community, then those constraints feel warm and holding. But if you’re a person where it’s antagonistic, then all of a sudden, you might feel personally hurt or torn. There’s room for variation, but only to a certain extent. It’s also not unrelated that I came out as not-straight in college. Brown’s queer community is more the idea that our society’s notion of gender needs to be completely overturned, rather than a man who’s in love with a man should be allowed to be a boy scout leader. So I’m not Orthodox.

When I say I’m Jewish, it means a couple different things. It means that I’m a part of what Jews are all over the world. It means that I have a specific history, both modern and ancient. The idea of group identity and clans works for me. The notion of a smaller unit of people who care about each other and share some traditions and take care of one another with this feeling that you have shared roots that come before you and your fates are somehow entwined. We’re a specific generation after the Holocaust and the notion of our fates being entwined is very real to me.

I think of the American immigrant model of the melting pot. If you put them all together on low heat, it becomes a cholent–you can make out the shapes of different ingredients, but they don’t keep their own flavor. There’s this tension between feeling proud and happy that we exist in a tradition, and being Americans committed to our governmental structure and not hating people, and that alone seems like a hard thing for people all over the world to do. There’s this fundamental clash between having a strong subgroup identity, and American values that want to ignore cultural variations and the same values that make a Jew wanting to marry a Jew seem “racist.” Right?

In the religious sense, I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be Jewish and whether that means I feel responsibility to carry on the tradition. I don’t know the answers. I think I won’t come to a resting point where I’ll stay for the rest of my life, but that probably my changing relationship to this stuff will be a lifelong thing.

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It’s so bizarre to feel so connected to something but also at the same time feel like I’m not part of the club.Age: 23

From: Connecticut

Currently living: Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

My dad is Jewish, but he was born in Germany and his dad was in the army. At that time, there were no Jewish commanders so his dad hid the fact that he was Jewish. Because of that, my dad was raised with no Jewish identity and I was raised with no Jewish identity.

Read Billie’s story here.

It’s so bizarre that I ended up the way that I am now and identify how I do because I was raised with no Jewish identity whatsoever. I actually went to church. My mom’s the Catholic edition of a High Holiday Jew. I went to church but I always felt uncomfortable so I never identified with anything religious at all. My dad is Jewish, but he was born in Germany and his dad was in the army. At that time, there were no Jewish commanders so his dad hid the fact that he was Jewish. Because of that, my dad was raised with no Jewish identity and I was raised with no Jewish identity.

I found Birthright—to be completely honest—as a free trip to go to Israel. I know it sounds so cliché but it just clicked. Something was there that was totally ineffable and indescribable. I’m the least religious person—at least I was—and I just felt something weird and bizarre. When I visited the Wailing Wall, from my very political feminist perspective I felt like, “What is this mechitzah doing?! Why is there a separation between men and women? What is this!” I wanted to get involved to help make things right. I realized I had to learn about what Judaism was so I did, and felt immediately connected to it.

When I came home, I became involved in Israel via my Jewish political interest and this ineffable religious experience that I didn’t know what it meant. I went back to Israel through Otzma, an organization that compiles all the Masa programs into one. I went to Israel to feel weird about myself and locate areas of discomfort and revel in what that means. While staying with a family in a settlement—I’m really open about my mother not being Jewish—and I told them and it got silent. It was a drop-your-forks moment. They were like, “What are you doing here?” I was all alone in a settlement in the West Bank and my phone’s off because it’s Shabbat and I’m surrounded by strangers telling me I’m not Jewish. It was a terrible moment. It’s really made me jump headfirst into being involved and learning as much as I can.

It’s sometimes hard to work at the New Israel Fund because people tell me I’m self-hating or that the work I’m doing is contributing to the destruction of Israel. Israel is the center of my Jewish identity. I want others to love it as much as I do, to be able to understand it’s not a perfect place, and work to make it the most special, the most democratic, the most equal place we all envision it to be.

My experience of having no Jewish identity has made me want to become an expert in everything. I’m gravitating towards religion because it makes me feel more connected to Israel and the community I want to be in, but it’s really difficult to communicate with my mom how special it is to me when she doesn’t understand what it means. My dad is excited but he also feels like Israel and the IDF can do no wrong. So I’m trying to maneuver around my parents who both know nothing and think I’m crazy. I think it almost makes my mom sad that she’s not Jewish because it makes me not Jewish.

Sometimes I think about conversion. If I’m gravitating towards all things Judaism, I’m also gravitating towards Jewish law and Jewish law says I’m not Jewish. I need to solve that issue for myself. It’s so bizarre to feel so connected to something but also at the same time feel like I’m not part of the club. I was talking to my colleague about this and she just stopped me—“What’re you talking about, conversion? You’re Jewish!” I realized I was caught within definitions of Jewishness made up by people I thought were more Jewish or held more power in the Jewish world, and so could tell me how to claim my identity. Sometimes I have to remind myself not to get discouraged.

I came back to the States for a job at the New Israel Fund. Within the American Jewish community, the Israel conversation is so polarized and black-and-white. People don’t understand the complexities and nuances, and when they think of Israel, they think of the conflict. But there are so many other issues facing minorities and women and the Bedoin and Druze and the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities and the non-Orthodox. It’s sometimes hard to work at the New Israel Fund because people tell me I’m self-hating or that the work I’m doing is contributing to the destruction of Israel.  Israel is the center of my Jewish identity. I want others to love it as much as I do, to be able to understand it’s not a perfect place, and work to make it the most special, the most democratic, the most equal place we all envision it to be.

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