Sharing Shehechiyanu: Writing our Jewish Story Together

For three years, I have been a member of the Kedma (Shared Society) Platform in the Global Connections Department of Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest (New Jersey). Earlier this month, participants in one of our flagship projects visited our community. We fund a program run by Shacharit and Ne’emanei Torah V’avodah that brings leaders in the Religious Zionist community together to expand their view of Jewish Peoplehood and to see other perspectives on Zionism and modern Judaism.  I went into this meeting curious about the participants (some of whom live over the Green Line) and how they were reacting to American Judaism. It was not what I expected.

At first, it was all pleasantries as we talked a bit about ourselves as Jews in our respective communities.  Then things got real. One of our members said the following. “As an Orthodox Jew, when my Rabbi is blacklisted and his conversions are not recognized, it’s bad.  When our [American Jewish] children can’t get married in Israel, it’s bad. When we’re not treated like real Jews, it’s bad.”

By the end of the meeting, one of the Israelis from Gush Etzion told us that she was surprised to hear our pain and anger, but she did hear it.  And she felt it.

Another Israeli expressed that she felt that American Jews were trying to change them and make them more like us.  

Another used an analogy of having two different drinks with different flavors.  When they mix together it will create something we can’t predict and neither of us might like the taste.

We spoke and we listened.  Most importantly, we were together in a room as Jews and there was a desire to write our story together.

The sentiment that resonated with me the most was the perception that American Jews are trying to make Israeli Jews more like us.   I am a Jew by Choice. But I didn’t become a Jew to change Judaism.

I support Pluralism, Civil Marriage, and Conversion Reform. These are very important and practical issues that affect all Jews outside Israel, if Israel is truly the Jewish State and a safe haven for all Jews around the world.   If an Israeli Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate has the final say on personal status issues and religious observance, then the majority of World Jewry has been largely “written off” by the Jewish State. As a Jew by choice, I am often conflicted about my “right” to challenge this. I am not, however, trying to change Judaism, or to rewrite Halacha.  I just wish for all Jews to have a voice in the conversation, that a broader range of Jewish voices be able to join the chorus.

An estimated 70% of non-Orthodox American Jews marry outside the faith. Rabbis are arguing vehemently and passionately about whether or not to officiate at mixed marriages.  Some are leaving their movement over this issue. It seems to me that intermarriage is inevitable in a place where Jews are a small, assimilated minority and are integrated in a larger, diverse population.  I believe it is critical to fully engage the children of those marriages as Jews. The statistics regarding Jewish engagement and identity for Birthright participants, especially those with only one Jewish parent, is compelling proof of the power of engagement.  

I was born to a Christian family but I was never religious.  Because I didn’t have a strong faith based identity of my own, I never really thought about converting to Judaism when I met my secular Jewish husband in college, not when we actually married, not when we had our children.  But, I insisted that my children have Hebrew names. I insisted that my son have a brit milah. We joined a progressive Jewish Community and our children attended Jewish Sunday School, because I insisted. I insisted on these things for my family because, knowing Jewish history, I could not keep my children from their People.  I grew up knowing about and being horrified by the Holocaust. My grandmother’s brother was involved in liberating a concentration camp six years after my husband’s grandmother lost all of her aunts, uncles and cousins in Poland when Nazi soldiers entered their small town and shot all the Jews.

In 2012, our daughter became a Bat Mitzvah and two months later I went to Israel for the first time with my Jewish Day School colleagues. On a beautiful Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem in December 2012,  I walked the cobblestone alleyways of this ancient place and I felt a sense of belonging, like I was finally home. I embraced my Shabbat Neshama Yetera. When I placed my forehead on the stones of the Kotel, thousands of  years of history flooded through me and I recognized myself for the first time. It became clear to me that my Jewish children deserved a Jewish mother. I could no longer just be the Gentile mother pushing her patrilineal Jewish children into the Tent.  I had to take them by the hands and walk in proudly with them. Where they go, I go. Their People are my People. Their G-d is my G-d. This was my Shehechiyanu moment.

I converted because I have a Jewish soul and a Jewish family.  Almost twenty years after I said “I do”, I said “I will” when asked if I would forever bind my destiny to the Jewish people.  With two Jewish children, it already was. My connection to Judaism is not through my parents, but through my children. I don’t have Jewish roots.  I have Jewish branches. And yet, the Rabbinate does not consider me a Jew. My children, who have ancestors and relatives who perished in the Holocaust and an official DNA report showing they are 50% Ashkenazi Jewish, are not considered Jews.  My adult daughter actively serves on the board of her college Hillel and worries about being a target of anti-semitism, yet she would not be permitted to legally marry a Jewish man in Israel because I was not Jewish when she was born and our conversions were not Orthodox.

Did Ruth face such scrutiny when she said to Naomi, “I go where you go.  Your People are my People. Your G-d is my G-d.” Jews who marry Gentiles are not necessarily rejecting their heritage or rejecting Judaism. They simply fell in love with someone outside their tradition. I  am not saying that all intermarried Jews will have a spouse who embraces Judaism. If they are shut out from the very beginning and shown a tradition that rejects their family, is there any hope? Israel is a powerful force in binding people to Jewish history and culture and civilization.  It certainly had that effect on me. I recently learned that my Federation is promoting a program called “Honeymoon Israel” to embrace intermarried families and show them how they can have a meaningful Jewish marriage and Jewish family life. What a powerful opportunity!

Since my conversion, I have become active in my local Federation.  I have made meaningful annual gifts and play an active role in our Global Connections initiatives.  I am a past participant in the Peoplehood Project and a vocal advocate for shared society in Israel.  I am the current subcommittee chair advocating for Arab Israeli shared society initiatives and will co-chair the Kedma Shared Society Committee next year.  Since 2012, I have been to Israel five times. My most recent trip was in February 2019 to explore shared society initiatives and partnership opportunities.  I have many friends there and it is where my Neshama Yetera lives. Whether the Rabbinate accepts me or not, my destiny is forever bound to the Jewish people. All of the Jewish people – Haredi, Dati or Hiloni — all of you.  I chose you. I go where you go. You are my People. Your G-d is my G-d.

What I say and do and advocate for in my work with Federation initiatives is not for me, it’s for my children.  I believe that Jews are one people, with one heart, and many voices. All of those voices are Jewish. I do not reject Orthodox Judaism as I ask for acceptance for my children.  I do reject it as the only Judaism.  But I do so from a place of love and longing. How do we build a shared society in Israel (and beyond) so every Jewish soul is embraced and celebrated, rather than judged and marginalized?

I will end with a short story.  After my conversion, my extended family went to Israel and we celebrated with a short ceremony at Robinson’s Arch (the egalitarian section of the Kotel).  We thought we were the only ones there. Afterwards, the Rabbi leading the ceremony commented that there was a young Ultra Orthodox family watching us from the upper platform.  It was a mystery that they were there at all. They saw a mixed group at the Kotel. They heard women singing “Jerusalem of Gold.” They did not run away in disgust or attack us, but they stayed and watched (and, more importantly, they listened),  I don’t know what they thought or what they told their children about what they saw. I only know they saw us and did not turn their backs on us. There was an invisible bridge between us as Jews that day. Let’s be brave and build more bridges so we can speak and listen to each other.  Let us build hearts with many rooms. Let us at this moment say Shehechiyanu, because we have all come to this place together from many directions and it is only the beginning of our story. Let us continue to write our Jewish story together. All of us.

About the Author
Julia Malaga is a Jewish communal professional with a strong interest in strengthening Israel/Diaspora relations and building living bridges within the Jewish world and between the various Tribes of Israel. She is currently the chair of the Arab Israeli committee under the Kedma Shared Society Platform of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ.
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