NEW YORK — When Eric Woodward started rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he assumed he would be be the only student who grew up celebrating Christmas along with Hanukkah.
But midway through his training, when Woodward started a discussion group for students of interfaith families, more than 20 people showed up.
Not all were children of intermarriage like Woodward, who was raised in Los Angeles by a secular Jewish mother and non-practicing Catholic father. Some were Jews by choice. Others had parents who converted or families with a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish members.
“I don’t see a family being interfaith as a shame or a stigma,” said Woodward, 31, who was ordained in May and is now assistant rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. “It didn’t preclude me from having a Jewish journey, and it won’t preclude someone else.”
Fifty percent of Jewish millennials — a generation roughly defined as those born in the 1980s and ’90s — grew up in intermarried homes, according to a new analysis of data from last month’s Pew Research Center study of American Jews. And while most of them don’t end up becoming rabbis, it is no longer uncommon to see such Jews in the non-Orthodox rabbinate.
No precise statistics are available on the percentage of clergy or rabbinical students from interfaith families, but they are a noticeable minority at the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries. Informal estimates put the proportion of children of intermarriage at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Marley Weiner, a second-year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, reports that six of 12 students in her class were, like her, raised by a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.
“I think it’s great,” said Rabbi Renni Altman, who directs the rabbinical program at HUC’s New York campus. “They bring a richness to the community, and a sensitivity and awareness that’s also wonderful.”
Altman said such rabbis show the potential of a group many demographers write off — a point echoed by the author of the new Pew analysis, Theodore Sasson, a senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
“This is a population that feels itself a part of the Jewish world but typically knows little of it,” Sasson wrote this week in the online magazine Tablet. “How Jewish organizations address this challenge will determine — more than any inexorable laws of demography — the future character of American Jewry.”
Rabbis raised in interfaith homes are a mixed lot. Some officiate at interfaith marriages, while others do not or have not yet made up their minds. Some were raised Jewish, while others embraced Judaism as teenagers or adults. Some felt welcomed by the Jewish community as children, others not so much.
But they all say their families, Jewish and gentile alike, support their decision to become rabbis. All see their backgrounds as something that makes them sensitive to the needs of intermarried families and comfortable with the diversity of practices among American Jews. And all are testaments to the unpredictable ways in which younger people are forging their own paths to Jewish identity despite their upbringing.
“People whose lives are messy can still find joy and a home in Judaism,” said Weiner, 26, whose parents, at her request, joined a synagogue and enrolled her in Hebrew school when she was 12.
Rabbis with non-Jewish fathers — like Joshua Caruso and Sara O’Donnell Adler, both 44 — are used to questions about their names. O’Donnell Adler, a chaplain at the University of Michigan Hospitals in Ann Arbor, said she deliberately kept O’Donnell when she married — not just because she is close to her Irish Catholic family, but because the name is a good icebreaker as she makes the hospital rounds.
“Some people make the assumption that I’ve converted to Judaism, and that’s OK,” she said. “It builds bridges of conversation and allows people to talk about their families. If I meet interfaith families, it seems to foster a connection.”
For Erik Uriarte, 35, a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, it’s not just the name but his Latino looks that raise eyebrows. He is constantly asked if he converted to Judaism to marry his wife — even though it is his wife, whose mother is not Jewish, who converted when the two joined a Conservative synagogue.
The rabbis whose mothers are not Jewish face different challenges, since without a conversion they are not considered Jewish under religious law.
Weiner declined a formal conversion, even though several professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to facilitate one while she was an undergraduate there. She knows conversion would mean she is recognized as Jewish beyond the non-Orthodox movements, but she wants to signal her acceptance of patrilineal descent.
“It’s not my job to be all things to all people or convince everyone I’m right,” Weiner said.
Rabbi Karen Perolman, 31, the assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., took a different approach, opting for a Conservative conversion after she was excluded from reading from the megillah at a community Purim celebration in college.
But perhaps the biggest dilemma for these rabbis is whether to officiate at intermarriages. Weiner anticipates that she will, while Uriarte says he is leaning against — a position he acknowledges is “slightly ironic” given his background.
“I totally, 100 percent support people marrying people they love and are going to get along with,” Uriarte said. “Where my concern comes in is regarding the children and how they’re raised. There’s a certain level of confidence you can have in marrying two Jewish people, even if they’re pretty secular, or two people when one is on the road to converting to Judaism. That, to me at least, would perpetuate a sense of Jewish identity.”
Many of the rabbis say their interfaith background has better prepared them to handle the challenges facing interfaith couples. Caruso believes he has credibility in explaining that his refusal to officiate at an intermarriage doesn’t imply rejection of the couple. Weiner says her background makes her more conscious of her obligation to care for both the Jewish and non-Jewish partners in a relationship. And Woodward says it makes him more conscious of the language he employs.
“Welcoming interfaith families doesn’t just mean not being mean to them,” Woodward said, “but saying we want you here.”