As the old adage goes, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.” And, I have learned from my dating experience that when you fall in love with someone, you better hold on tight because it’s not everyday that you find someone who accepts you for you — for the good, the bad, the quirks and even, in some cases, cultural and religious differences.
With the Jewish holidays approaching, I have been reflecting a lot on the previous year and how much I have changed. From 25 to 26, I have matured, taken on new challenges and now see a clear vision for my future that includes an additional special someone who came into my life within the past year.
It was just a few days after Yom Kippur last year when I met someone who would change the rest of my life. I met my boyfriend when I was on the search for a nice Jewish boy, but, as fate would have it, I met a nice African-American boy instead. Both interested in fitness and with a shared love of all foods sweet, we hit it off immediately. Pretty soon thereafter, we were, and still are, inseparable.
But, when our relationship was still new, I worried about how the outside world would perceive us. Living in Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose history is marred by civil rights turmoil, I was nervous that every time we went on a date, people would stare at us — a white girl with a black guy.
Startling and Confusing
My worries didn’t stop there. As someone who has committed myself to Jewish community work, I was looking for someone who was Jewish, who understood my traditions and culture and who would help me create a Jewish home. But things didn’t work out the way I had always envisioned, which was a little startling and confusing to me. And, to be honest, I am a little nervous writing about this and sending it out for the entire world to read. But this is an essential part of me and who I am.
I know interfaith and interracial relationships are more common today than they have ever been. But there are subtleties and complexities surrounding these types of relationships that I didn’t understand until I was in one. Besides this being a personal journey, my interfaith and interracial relationship has broadened my perspective on what some young Jews entering their own interfaith or interracial relationships are facing. And, I believe this personal experience will help me be a better Federation professional who can serve as a resource for guiding couples navigating similar relationships.
When I first told my parents about my new boyfriend — Jamil Clayton — they were hesitant. Things would be difficult for me, they explained, not just from a racial standpoint, but from a religious perspective as well. I remember exactly where we were and exactly what they said when they told me that it would be hard for a white girl to date a black guy, especially here in Birmingham — and a young Jewish woman, as committed to Judaism as I had become, to date someone who wasn’t Jewish.
Their words came out of their love for me — no parent wants their child to experience any hardship. I could sense their uncertainty, but they said they would support me in my decisions and love him if I loved him. And they do love him — like most other people who meet him.
I have been surprised at Jamil’s eagerness to understand my Jewish world. Despite being the only African-American at Friday night services when we go to Temple, he sits next to me relaxed and, I sense, feeling welcomed. Jamil is extremely supportive of my work at The BJF and is very interested in the programs and projects I’m involved in. He has come to value the traditions of Judaism that I hold so dear and the work our Federation does. He has attended many Birmingham Jewish Federation events and even helped me lead the first Passover Seder I ever hosted on my own.
Seeing Judaism through his eyes has been a wonderful gift to me. Explaining the Passover Seder, Rosh Hashanah, why men where a kippah (religious head covering), etc. has led me to examine my own Judaism more deeply and appreciate it at an even more meaningful level. The conversations we have about my beliefs are ones I relish — I love telling the story of my people, the difficulties we have faced and the triumphs we have had. And, on some levels, Jamil, being African-American, can relate to these difficulties and triumphs.
My worries about dating a black man have proven to be unfounded — we are never treated differently, no matter where we go, and the Birmingham Jewish community has welcomed Jamil with open arms. For my peers — young adults in their 20s and 30s — this tends to be easier because we have grown up in an era that values diversity. Still, those older than me have been equally welcoming. But, there still are some cultural differences that Jamil and I will have to navigate as our relationship deepens and our future unfolds.
Challenge and Opportunity
In today’s world, more and more young Jews are marrying people who aren’t Jewish. Many see this as a challenge to the continuity of the Jewish people. But I also see it as an opportunity to educate and draw people closer to Judaism. This, in fact, can apply to both individuals in a relationship as reflected in my relationship with Jamil. It is exciting to welcome more people into our community and, the truth is, I think it will help strengthen our community in ways that are hard to imagine right now.
My boyfriend and I plan to get married some day and we will intentionally create a Jewish household, observe the Jewish holidays together and embrace Jewish traditions. These things are non-negotiable for me. We will raise our children Jewish and Jamil is excited about that.
Life has been so good to me. I have two loves in my life right now — my work at The BJF and my boyfriend. I never could have imagined that, at 26, I would have found a career that I want to spend the rest of my life doing and the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. I am lucky.
You can’t help who you fall in love with and things aren’t always black and white. This holiday season, Jamil will observe Rosh Hashana, and then later fast for Yom Kippur and then spend time in a sukkah for Sukkot, all for the first time. And I know it won’t be his last time.