You Shall Pursue

June 6, 2012

Thoughts On Patrilineal Descent: How to be a Rabbi When Your Mother Isn’t Jewish

I’m facing this very interesting situation upon graduation(Who’s a planner? I’m a planner!). Once I have my smicha, I’m going to be a rabbi that about half of the American Jewish community doesn’t consider Jewish. Certainly I’m not the first person in this situation, but it is going to be an interesting dilemma some day.

So much of the reason that I want to be a leader in the Jewish community springs, ironically, from my less than traditional Jewish upbringing. My father was raised as a Conservative Jew, and my mother was raised Presbyterian, but I like to joke that they actually share a religion: healthy mistrust of organized Judaism. My father HATED Hebrew school and his traditional Jewish community that discouraged questions and open dialogue. At the beginning of my parents’ marriage, my mother was treated poorly by the Jewish community. So my parents have trouble with Jewish ritual, and participation in Jewish organizations, and generally ambivalent attitudes towards Judaism in general.

Until I was about 12 years old, this ambivalence towards Judaism was reflected in my upbringing. I went to church occasionally with my Christian grandparents, and reveled in the fact that I knew the bible stories better than the kids who attended every week. I was sent to Bible camp one summer with my best friend (that year’s camp theme was King David; we learned some Psalms and the story of David and Jonathan, and surprisingly little about Jesus). My family celebrated Passover and Hanukkah and Christmas and Easter, usually with food and family and presents, and precious little actual religious content. In short, I was ecumenically Judeo- Christian until I hit puberty.

Then somehow around the age of 12 (and I still don’t really understand how this happened) I decided I wanted to be Jewish. My parents agreed to send me to Hebrew school, I had a Bat Mitzvah, then Confirmation, then I participated in my local Hebrew High. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was attending Shabbat services on occasion, teaching Hebrew school, singing in a Jewish youth choir, and had decided that I wanted to be a rabbi. In a religion that is so fundamentally about family and kinship, every step that I have taken towards deeper Jewish practice has been, in a very real sense, a step away from what my parents envisioned for me when I was a small child.

But I am still very much my parents’ daughter, and I try to carry what I have learned from them with me into my future rabbinate. Here’s what I have learned:

Some people will never have more than a peripheral involvement in the Jewish community. That is all that they are comfortable with or interested in, and that is okay. My parents no longer belong to a synagogue (although they talk about joining every now and again). They didn’t have a seder this year, because I was unable to come home to lead it. My sister is the second most engaged Jew in the family, because she went on Birthright and occasionally hangs out at her university’s Hillel. As painful as that is sometimes, my family is awesome, and they come to Judaism in the ways that make sense to them and in their own time. It is not my job to harangue them. They know that they can come to me with questions any time, and I will answer them happily.

I have always seen it as part of my duty to serve people in the Jewish community like my parents. People who are ambivalent about Judaism, or who have had negative experiences, or who are afraid of the reaction that they might get trying to join. There are so many for whom Judaism might serve as a help or a source of community, but who are not sure if Judaism is for them. To them I say, if my parents have a place in the Jewish community, so do you. But you need to come to that at your own pace, and in your own time. It is my job to welcome you when you arrive.

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