Becoming Jews of Mixed Identity

Looking back, it seems inevitable that I became involved in Jewish life in college. I attended religious school for 14 years and spent summers studying Jewish literature and teaching English in Israel. I had even written my Common App essay on how my time in Israel had helped me feel more confident, and that despite coming from an interfaith family, I was unquestionably Jewish. But when I looked at the schedule for first-year orientation, the idea of going to the Hillel barbecue filled my stomach with butterflies. I associated Hillel with youth groups and summer camps—those parts of Jewish life where I’d never felt like I belonged. And even more than that, going to Hillel to me represented entering the broader Jewish world and leaving behind the cocoon of the Reform temple I had grown up in, where I had never had to worry that I would be excluded or seen as less than because I was a patrilineal Jew.

I ended up going to the event late. Cautiously threading my way through the crowd, I found myself in front of a row of colorful poster boards advertising the Hillel’s many clubs. Was I interested in tzedek? Cooking? Suddenly, I noticed one board in the corner of my eye: “Jews of Mixed Identity.” The senior sitting next to the poster explained that the group was a space for anyone who was “Jewish and.” I had never heard that phrase before, but it made my heart sing. I scribbled my name, email and class year down on the sign-up sheet, and under the column marked “Background,” I hesitantly writing Jewish and Irish.

When I arrived at Hillel’s Student Lounge exactly on time for the group’s first meeting, I found fewer people than I had expected—just the senior from the barbecue, who introduced herself as Hannah Liu, and two other first years, who left 10 minutes in. I sat quietly, nervously eating the provided snacks, but Hannah drew me out into conversation. I learned that while we’re both from interfaith families and are Ashkenazi, her non-Jewish parent is Taiwanese, while mine is Irish Catholic. And while I’m a patrilineal Jew, it’s her mother who is the Jewish parent—meaning that, ironically, while I’m the one who has the stereotypically Ashkenazi last name and fits into racialized ideas of “what a Jew looks like,” she’s the one who is halakhically Jewish. The conversation flowed thickly and easily, the two of us trading experiences and insights. I left the room thrilled to have finally found someone like me.

The meetings didn’t get any bigger as the weeks went by, but Hannah and I never ran out of things to talk about, discussing everything from our upbringings to how we wanted to express our heritages as we moved into adulthood. Over the course of our conversations, I learned that Hannah had begun Jews of Mixed Identity (JMI) a few years earlier for much the same reasons that had initially led me to sign up. She had been active in a group for multiracial students but felt like she was missing a place to specifically reflect on what it meant to be Jewish and Asian. The group had drawn a steady crowd its first year, though not at all who Hannah had expected; rather than all students with a non-Jewish parent, the meetings drew others too, like Sephardi Jews and folks in the process of converting. Meetings became a space for anyone who felt marginalized in the larger Jewish community due to their cultural or racial identity. However, when Hannah went abroad for a semester, attendance fell off. She and I resolved to resurrect the group.

When Hannah graduated that spring, I was left as JMI’s coordinator and sole member. I was nervous but also changed from the first year, when I was hesitant even to walk through the doors of Hillel. I’d become active in the Reform minyan, which Hannah also co-led, and had gradually made Hillel a space where I felt at home. I was also excited for the potential to be for incoming first years what Hannah had been for me.

My chance came when four first-years showed up to our initial meeting of the year, making it the largest JMI event since I had joined. And miraculously, they as well as others kept coming back until our meetings reached a small but steady size of seven or eight. Like the year before, we were in many ways more different than alike. Most, but not all, of us were from interfaith families; most, but not all, of us were Ashkenazi; most, but not all, of us were Jews of color. We had different exposures to Jewish community growing up, different relationships with our non-Jewish heritage and different everything in between. It was never hard to keep the conversation going. Our meetings became the highlight of my week. I was thrilled too to find a new co-coordinator to build our community with me. From the start, my relationship with Taja Hirata-Epstein reminded me of my friendship with Hannah. Taja’s background could hardly be more different than my own; she’s a Japanese Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in Hawai’i largely alienated from the local Jewish community. However, like in my conversations with Hannah, I don’t think Taja and I have ever had a discussion about identity—or much else—where we haven’t ended up on the same page. One of the things we agreed on most was our desire to see JMI flourish.

However, despite our best efforts, the club didn’t grow at all the next fall. We had trouble even getting people to sign up at the activities fair, much less show up for meetings. Taja and I gradually realized the difficulty inherent to our task; we were a club nestled within a larger Jewish community that was specifically for folks who were likely to have experienced prior marginalization in Jewish community. Of course, Taja and I often felt like we weren’t able to devote as much time to the club as we wished either. This was partly due to personal circumstances, but also because we both had racked up other commitments at Hillel. I had run for Welcoming Chair my sophomore fall, and Taja had joined my committee and then succeeded me in the position when I ran for the Hillel executive board the next year. Both of us became involved in the broader community for the same reasons we’d joined JMI: Motivated by our own experiences, we wanted to make sure our Jewish community was fully inclusive of all. It was a sad irony that this meant we had less time for the group that had originally made us feel safe in Jewish spaces, and it wasn’t lost on either of us that this was a trade that leaders of many other Hillel groups didn’t have to make. Still, we kept going more or less steadily, until as we moved into Taja’s second semester as co-coordinator, two events—one good and one bad—forced us to reconsider JMI’s very premise.

The good came first. Several years prior, two Black Jewish women had founded a Jews of Color group at our Hillel. Unfortunately, the group had been inactive as long as I had been in college. A new Black Jewish staff member, Jordan Mann, decided to revive it, recruiting Taja to help him reach out to Jews of Color across campus. Together, they quickly compiled a long list of names, belying the myth that the reason more Jews of Color aren’t in Jewish spaces is that they don’t exist. When Taja filled me in over sandwiches in the campus cafe, I was excited, but I also selfishly wondered what this meant for us. JMI’s membership could be summed up as Jews of Color, plus me. There were certainly plenty of other white Jews from interfaith families at our Hillel, but we had thus far been unsuccessful in getting any to see their family background as affecting their Jewishness. If Hillel once again had a group specifically for Jews of Color, did our community still need JMI?

As Taja and I talked it over, it became clear that even if much of our membership would overlap with Jews of Color, our group could be redefined in a way that still made it feel distinct and necessary. For years, we’d functionally been the only space at our Hillel for those who felt their cultural and/or racial identity differed from those assumed to be the norm in Jewish spaces. This, after all, had been the precise reason why the group had prospered when Hannah first started it. We weren’t really defining ourselves at all, just maintaining a space for those who the broader community defined as other. Our desire to include everyone led to strange semantic gymnastics. The group’s ostensible focus was embedded in our name: We were a group for Jews whose Jewishness was in some way mixed with something else. How did that stretch to include non-Ashkenazi Jews, listed among the groups welcome at our meetings? Being able to stop pretending we were for everyone—to rebrand as specifically for Jews from interfaith and multiracial families—would give us the freedom to actually explore more deeply what it meant to be mixed. We recognized, of course, that there’s a huge difference between the experiences of a Jew of Color from a multiracial family and a white Jew from an interfaith family. What in our view brought the two together—first me and Hannah, and then me and Taja—wasn’t identity but empathy. We could all draw on the same language, the same metaphors of mixedness.

It was our eagerness to build community using this new, refined conception of who we were that led us into trouble. Reflecting on our past programs, Taja and I realized that they were almost entirely discussions analyzing our experiences, often focusing heavily on the painful and negative aspects of those experiences. We decided to make room for celebrating our identities as well. Since Passover and Easter were coming up, we decided to hold a combo-Easter egg/afikomen hunt, something we felt would connect with many of our members and would allow for reflection on how our various traditions intertwined in our lives.

Up to this point, JMI was, of course, under the auspices of our Hillel, but we had generally been left to our own devices. So we were shocked when a few days after the student executive board approved the event, we learned that the staff and some members of the board of trustees objected to it. Compromises were discussed, but it became clear that we wouldn’t be allowed to hold anything that remotely resembled the event we had envisioned.

I didn’t realize exactly how important the event was to me until it was taken away. In meetings with staff members and other students, I tried again and again to explain. To articulate how Easter and Passover were inexorably intertwined in my memory, how my sister and I re-enacted the Exodus with our giant light-up bunny decoration, how when the holidays overlapped, I had to save my marshmallow Peeps until I could eat chametz again. A part of me felt like that if I just did a good-enough job of explaining how excited I had been to have a chance to just celebrate my childhood with no caveats, they would change their minds. Instead, my plea was met with explanations that this “display of Christianity” was a red line—that when Hillel said it aimed to nurture students’ Jewishness, it didn’t mean this.

I know it was naive of me to assume that this event wouldn’t create controversy. But I had truly viewed Hillel as my home on campus, had truly felt like the staff supported JMI—that they supported me. I realized that I’d mistaken tolerance for true acceptance. At our Hillel and elsewhere, Jews from interfaith families, like so many other marginalized Jews, are enthusiastically welcomed to become part of a pre-defined Jewish community. We’re welcome to assimilate, to change ourselves to fit the community, but not to change the community itself. We’re given a seat at the table, but it’s not ours to help set.

What upsets me most is that we were seen as outside the bounds of pluralism. I don’t expect everyone to think that this event was a good idea, but Hillel is a pluralistic space; the whole thesis, I’d thought, was that we could be in community without agreeing with everything everyone else did and believed. Certainly, Jews from interfaith families are constantly asked to compromise themselves for the sake of Jewish community—to be in spaces where our families are seen as second best; to learn from teachers and seek support from chaplains who don’t believe our Jewishness is valid; and if we’re patrilineal Jews, have our participation in various prayer spaces curtailed. And none of these things are even viewed as compromises, just the conditions for access to Jewish community. What was this one controversial event weighed against all that?

I thought very seriously that spring and summer about leaving the Jewish community. Each time, I tried and failed to express to my friends with two Jewish parents exactly why I was so distraught, I became more and more unsure that there existed a Jewish community where I could be the type of Jew I wanted to be. Our Hillel was in so many ways incredibly ahead of the curve; the very fact that these conflicts were happening, that we had groups for Jews from interfaith families and Jews of Color to begin with was something that I still cannot imagine happening at any other Hillel. If I couldn’t be myself here, what hope did I have of thriving anywhere else?

It was ultimately JMI that brought me back. Remembering that our small, tight-knit community never saw me as outside the norm, as anything less than valid. And remembering that while our specific group was small, so many young Jews share my experiences. Jews from interfaith families might not see themselves or be seen as an identity group, but we are one. We’re marginalized, but not marginal, not small. Just because we don’t speak as one doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice. Despite the discussions we’d had after Jews of Color relaunched, it was truly the event cancellation that reinvigorated Taja’s and my faith that JMI needed to exist—that there needed to be spaces for that voice, our voice.

I wish I could say that the next year Taja and I recruited a record number of new members. But while I think the discussions we held that year were among our best, the group remained as small as ever. We took baby steps down the new path we had laid out for ourselves, but the truth was that both she and I were very much still healing from the spring. It took all of our energy to keep ourselves involved in Jewish life, much less recruit others. The group survives, still provides a handful of people with the community I so valued, but it hasn’t yet realized the potential I always saw in it.

A few weeks ago, I asked Hannah if she ever thought that starting JMI was a mistake. If she worried we draw people into a Jewish world that will never fully accept them. The truth, though, is that she didn’t start JMI and I didn’t maintain it for other people. We did it because we needed it. When I asked her what impact the group had on her, she explained how the group changed how she conceptualized her identity, how it helped her see the different parts of herself as intertwining, how it taught her not only that community between Jews from interfaith families is possible, but that it is crucial to sustaining ourselves. I saw myself in everything she said.

When I picture the Jewish community I want to be a part of for the rest of my life, I think back to those first conversations with Hannah in the student lounge and to all of those group discussions that followed as our size waxed and waned over the years. I think of all those moments of being seen for the Jew I was … in all my complexity.

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