My Story

This is the story of “My Life as a Jistian”I grew up in a Reform Jewish, secular home.  For many of you this may sound like an oxymoron – how can someone be Jewish and secular?  This is the mystery that my dear husband still finds perplexing, so I will try to do a better job of explaining it to you. First it is important that you understand Reform Judaism.

For those of you who are not familiar, Reform Judaism originated in Germany in the early 1800s (where most of my mother’s family is from) and was started by Jews who were freed from the segregated experience of the ghetto and who wanted to assimilate into German culture. Reform Jews do not follow the strict rules that affect every day life (the 613 Mishnah that define every detail of life for Orthodox Jews), and because of this are able to live more easily with peoples of other faiths.

So in my family we did not treat Friday nights or Saturdays any different than any other day.  We ate pork (in fact my mother liked to joke about serving pork for Passover).  We even, to my father’s displeasure, celebrated Christmas and had one of the largest Christmas trees in town. But that is how my mother had been raised – everyone in her German Jewish family had always had Christmas trees. My mother had had no religious education, nor had her mother. But they still strongly identified themselves as Jewish – it was a cultural identity, a part of our family identity.

My father’s family was more observant – Russian and Scottish Jewish. My father, a brilliant lawyer with a photographic memory, always had a strong intellectual interest in Jewish history and theology in general, but actually did not believe in God. For that matter, I am pretty sure my mother didn’t either.

But despite the lack of faith in God, and the lack of observance of the detailed practices that define Conservative or Orthodox Jews, my family was still clearly Jewish. We attended synagogue on the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).   We celebrated Hanukah and Passover. We made Jewish jokes and laughed at the parts of Mel Brooks movies that our non-Jewish friends didn’t get.  I also believe that my family identified themselves as Jewish in response to experiences of anti-Semitism that they (certainly my father) had had. Members of my mother’s family had died in the Holocaust.   I knew I was a Jew because Hitler would have defined me as such.

My Jewish identity was also shaped by my religious education. I attended Hebrew school through my Bat-Mitzvah, and beyond.  I chose to do this:  My parents told me that I would not be having one of those ‘over the top’ Bat Mitzvahs with a big party and lots of presents. And I didn’t care. I was always interested in religion and was just basically a nerd who just loved to study.  And to be able to read the Torah in Hebrew for one’s Bat Mitzvah requires a lot of study.  Other than learning Hebrew, the other aspects of my religious education were primarily cultural, and political.  Cultural in that I learned about all of the Jewish holidays; Political in that we spent a significant amount of time learning about the Holocaust, the history and political situation of Israel, and about the importance of rebuilding and sustaining the Jewish people after our near complete genocide.

I want to linger on this point because it is one of the ways that Judaism is so different than Christianity – because to me, and many other Jews – being Jewish is about identity, and obligation. I was raised that because of the continuous persecution of the Jewish people, and the 6 million Jews who were killed in Holocaust, that it is my duty as a Jew to keep Judaism alive.   The main way I was supposed to do this was to marry Jewish, and to raise my children as Jews.  I remember being told by my rabbi that it was better not even to date non-Jews, because then I ran the risk of marrying a non-Jew and having non-Jewish children (he was quite prescient on that point).    I was also told that I should have at least three children – two to replace my husband and myself, and a third to replace a Holocaust victim.

After my Bat Mitzvah I again chose to continue my religious education through to 10th grade Confirmation (a Reform Jewish phenomenon, I should mention). It was not until 10th grade that we covered ethics as a subject in any depth. In that year we studied the Pirke Avot – the Sayings of the Fathers – which I still remember as being a formative and wonderful exposure to the ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition.

The third crucial influence from my childhood was my education. I attended a Quaker school. For those of you unfamiliar with the Quaker tradition – Quakers are a group within Reform Christianity that hold extraordinarily liberal and egalitarian ideas about religion and society in general.  Quakers do not have churches. They do not have ministers. Quakers have ‘meeting houses’ – and once a week they assemble in the Meeting House and everyone just sits in silence. Then, when and if anyone in the congregation has something to say, they get up, say their piece, and then sit down.  I attended Quaker meeting once a week from Kindergarten through 12th grade – and I loved it. It was a time for contemplation – for sharing insights.  Politically what is distinctive about Quakers is their complete commitment to Christ’s message of non-violence. They believe that violence is NEVER justified. We never had someone come to talk about the Draft – we had someone come to explain how to be a conscientious objector.  The school was, not surprisingly, incredibly liberal in general and instilled in me a strong sense of obligation for those less fortunate. Interestingly, the student body of the school was perhaps 50% Jewish – and my mother and her whole family had attended this school.  In high school and beyond I found myself drawn to philosophy, Classics, English – subjects where there was room to explore the ‘big questions’ of life – because I just was one of those people who did a lot of that (others might call it spending time analyzing your navel).

So these three sources of influence: home, religious education, and Quaker school, made me into someone who clearly identified myself as Jewish, had a strong intellectual interest in religious and philosophical issues and a concern for social justice, but who was at core secular in practice and profoundly non-spiritual.

College was a revelation for me in a number of ways. Early on I developed an interest in political science. Taking an intro to international relations course my freshman year I had the opportunity to do a research paper on the founding of Israel – and learned for the first time how one-sided a view I had of Israel’s history. I will hasten to add that I still am a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, but I now have a much greater appreciation of the other side of this story.  I also had the opportunity to take several religion courses – one in Jewish history, and another in Jewish philosophy, that made me appreciate the richness of Jewish heritage in a way that I, quite frankly, feel I should have gained in my religious education but did not.  In one of these courses I had a chance to write a paper that became crucial for my thinking over the next few years. It was about the modern American Jewish identity – and specifically – grappling with the obligation that had been laid on me as a child.  My question in that paper was about what exactly it was that I was supposed to be preserving when I was challenged to ‘preserve Judaism’.   In Reform Judaism, where the distinctive practices that define Orthodox and Conservative Judaism have been eliminated, what ends up being left – at least, what was left for me – was the formative experience of centuries of anti-semitism culminating in the Holocaust and the tribal obligation of rebuilding and preserving the Jewish people. But what was the positive model that I was striving to preserve? What did it really mean to be Jewish?

I graduated from college in ’91, as the Berlin wall was falling and Yeltsin was standing on a tank in Moscow. Fascinated by the changes taking place in Eastern Europe, I took a job teaching English in what was then Czechoslovakia.  I was there when the country decided to split into two, and watched the peaceful, yet occasionally tense relations between the Czech and Slovak students I taught. Disturbed by this experience and more deeply horrified by the ethnic cleansing occurring in other parts of the region, I decided to focus my attention on issues of nationalism and ethnic conflict.  Returning to the states, I got a job working as a research assistant in the Washington DC bureau of one of Japan’s leading newspapers. It was a wonderful opportunity to continue to follow foreign and national policy issues as I did all the work of a journalist except writing the story (I turned in all the research to the correspondent who would then write the story in Japanese).  After two years in DC attending white house press conferences, travelling to the Hill and continuing to follow developments in Eastern Europe I resolved to pursue a career in foreign policy and ethnic conflict resolution in Eastern Europe. I spent the summer of ’94 in Moscow brushing up on the Russian I’d learned in college, then started graduate school to get a degree in foreign policy.

Two-thirds of the way through the first semester, my mother, with whom I had always been very close, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  My life changed.

Already beginning to have second thoughts about my chosen career as I reached my late twenties and started to feel my biological clock starting to tick, my mother’s illness made me truly reassess my priorities. I realized how important family was to me.  I realized a life traversing war-torn regions, while appeasing my need to feel like I was ‘making a difference in the world’, would not ultimately make me happy.

I took a leave of absence from graduate school and returned home. After some soul searching I decided to do something crazy and try to actually develop some usable skills. I got a job through a friend at a software company.   I discovered then how business- particularly small local businesses – can have a profoundly positive impact on local communities – giving jobs and hope to people who have nothing.  I was fascinated by the creativity of technology, and the energy of an entrepreneurial environment.  Three years later I decided to return to graduate school, but this time to get an MBA.

I should note that through my twenties, I repeatedly attempted, and failed, to do as I’d been taught and meet a nice Jewish boy.   As I arrived at business school I was dating a man who had been raised Jewish but who had completely rejected Judaism and converted to Buddhism.  He insisted that if we had children we could NOT raise them Jewish.  Truly ironic.

I met my future husband (Doug) on my first day of business school.  And my life changed again.  That first semester, my mother’s cancer, which had gone into remission, returned.  During the course of my first year at business school she became progressively sicker and died in March of that year. Doug had only just met me, and probably a lesser man would have run away from the intensity of the situation. But he stood by me. He was my rock.  It was then I knew that he was a keeper.

As my relationship with Doug deepened, it became clear that religion would be the biggest issue we had to resolve. Doug had been raised a devout Presbyterian. His parents were very involved in their Presbyterian church. He had gone to Christian camp as a kid, had done youth group. His faith was something important to him and his family. And I was a Jew, with no faith but a strong sense of identity and obligation.  But I was in love, as was he, and after much discussion I decided that while I personally would never convert, I would be OK raising the kids Christian.  I decided this based on a comparison of our experiences with religious education. As I explained already, my education had been primarily linguistic, cultural, political. I had only covered ethical issues in 10th grade, and in college!  In contrast, Doug’s education had been all about how to treat others by embracing the message of Jesus.  To be frank, Doug’s religious education seemed to me more what religious education should be about.

I knew on some level that this decision would be decisive for my relationship to Judaism. As soon as I had made this decision, I had betrayed the key obligation of being a Jew – to continue the Jewish people.

Doug and I got engaged soon after we graduated from business school in ‘99. I pursued my passion for technology and entrepreneurship, working for various dot-com startups.  Doug and I took inter-faith couples classes to help us figure out how our joint faith relationship would work.  This class further affirmed that the choice we had made regarding the kids was the right one. We learned that raising kids ‘both’ rarely worked out well, and raising the kids ‘nothing’ did not appeal to either of us.  During this time we also struggled to find a rabbi who would agree to marry us – as we had decided we want a co-officiated wedding.  We finally succeeded, and I am eternally grateful to that rabbi.

We were married in September of 2000. We had thought we would wait about a year to start a family, but things went a little faster than planned and a few months later I found myself pregnant. My daughter was born in November of 2001. We moved to the suburbs in 2002. In 2003 I became pregnant with twins, who were born in January of 2004.

Right around this time we began to attend the local Presbyterian church. Our first time at the church was the Christmas Pageant. I fell in love with the church right then and there – the informality and inclusiveness won me over. We started attending regularly, and feeling guilty that I had three children in Sunday school, asked if I could help as a teacher. This was another moment where the church really won me over – because the head of the Sunday school said ‘yes’. Doug used to make so much fun of me for being the world’s first Jewish Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and asking if I was teaching the kids Hebrew on the sly. But the fact that the church welcomed me this way – let me teach what I could (I still opted out of teaching the Easter class) – was something truly special.

This church was really the first time that I truly felt a part of a religious community. Growing up, my family did not attend a synagogue regularly. Hebrew school occurs at a different time than worship services, and parents simply drop the children off to get their religious education and then go off to do their own thing.  The synagogue we attended was a thirty minute drive from our home and almost none of the children attended the same grade school as me. Coming to this church – where so many families attend church regularly, live near by and go to the same schools – where the church community is a real community – was something magical.  It was something I had long sought but had never found before.

During this time I was also reading a lot. Now that the children were beginning a formal Christian education I realized I needed to come up with my own answers about what exactly I believed.  Of course, the only real question was what I thought of Jesus.

The first book I picked up is one that had been a cast-off left in my apartment building in NYC: The Question of God, by Armand Nicholi, which was a comparative biography of the life of C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. This book led me to my first moment of opening – to considering Jesus in a way I never expected to. I remember the specific moment when this happened: when the book quoted C.S. Lewis’ point that there are two ways to explain Jesus’ statements that he was the Son of God. Either you could assume he was insane – but little else in his behavior supports this explanation. Or, you could assume that he was telling the truth.  At the time I found this point incredibly powerful.  Other parts of this book also moved me: the author, a Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry, shared some of his findings regarding the profoundly positive impact that faith had had for some of his patients. I was also fascinated by the fact that someone so brilliant and previously secular as C.S. Lewis could undergo such a profound transformation – and how that transformation had turned him from a bitter angry man into someone who was filled with grace and peace until his death.  Bottom line – I was intrigued.

It was then that I began meeting with the minister of our church.  This was again a point where this church, and this minister, were so outstanding. I was so impressed by the fact that the minister NEVER put any pressure on me. There was no hard sell, or any sell at all for that matter. He just gave me books, and recommended books, and engaged with me intellectually. He was fantastic.

Of the books that my minister recommended, the ones that influenced me the most were those by Marcus Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity. What I found the most compelling about Borg’s approach was his point that Christianity was not just about beliefs – about having to believe every single part of a story which, to be honest, is kind of tough to swallow for an outsider. It’s about making Jesus central to your life – the source for inspiration, transformation, grace.   While I actually continue to struggle with whether Marcus Borg’s theology actually represents Christianity or something else, he definitely opened the door for me. Again, my minister was tremendously helpful in pointing out that in our branch of Presbyterianism, what you believe is between you and God.

I also spent a fair amount of time reading the Gospels – particularly the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. I was blown away.  The Jesus of the Gospels was nothing like the stereotypes I had received second-hand.  His message, His life, His being, all were compelling, inspiring in a surprising and refreshing way.

All of what I have described so far were intellectual developments, but now comes the weird part. During this time, when the boys were still babies, and my daughter was in her early preschool years – these were really hard years. They are hard for any mother –but I have always had a tendency towards…darkness. I felt tremendously isolated during this time – I was deeply depressed, hopeless. Moving to the suburbs was, to be frank, a cultural challenge for me.   Being a mother – and so quickly a mother of three – was also difficult. Doing it without my own mother as a source of support, and with no close friends around, was excruciating.

Then something happened. While I was doing all of this reading, and thinking, about Jesus, in this time of darkness in my life – something happened. I felt better. I can’t really explain it. But I just remember these periods when I’d be up at night reading– using up precious moments when I should have been sleeping – and all of a sudden I felt like I was touched by something and my darkness lifted.  I felt different – happier – more alive. And that’s when I became a believer.

I told my minister this story, and told him that I wanted to get baptized as a way to give thanks for the transformation I had experienced.   And that is how I feel now every time I take Communion – I am giving thanks for the new life I have been given.

So the rest is history, and not.  I continue to struggle to figure out exactly what I believe, and what happened 2000 years ago, and what the heck I am. I am pretty sure I’ll never finish that process. I can tell you though that I basically consider myself a Christian Jew.  Because of my upbringing and the remaining sense of obligation I feel, I will never reject my Jewish cultural identity. I want my children to understand the rich Jewish heritage of my family. This year we hosted 20 members of my family for Passover. As my children get older I will teach them other aspects of Jewish history. But in terms of my faith – I am Christian – although  a very non-traditional one. I feel completely comfortable saying that Jesus is my Lord and Savior – but those terms don’t necessarily mean to me what perhaps they mean to others. To me Jesus is my Lord because he is the guiding inspiration in my life – following His way is my top priority – above money, power or prestige. And He is my Savior because he literally saved me in this life from darkness, and continues to save me when I feel myself slipping back.

17 Responses to My Story

  1. joan huenemann michie says:

    I was – again – moved by your story. I am so happy that I know you and I look forward to years of theological and life story conversations – as they say in the Midwest “God willing and the creek doesn’t rise!”
    Blessings and thanks,

  2. ashley podnar says:

    It is so refreshing to read your story. What is so reassuring to me is your journey. You had (have) questions doubts and uncertainties but you also have trust. This really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Joy Spencer says:

    We are all changed by our relationships, for better or for worse.
    The relationship with Jesus is the one that brings transformation, trust and truth – truly it’s about “life in all its fullness”, just like he said.
    Thanks for sharing your story and reminding me that our gracious Lord is everything that was promised down the ages – “of the increase of his government and peace, there shall be no end.”

    • Open says:

      Mazel TovJust stumbled acsors our website and I am absolutely delighted that wehave a small window for Humanistic Jews in the UK at last. I look forwardto the site growing and gaining many new members. The site will hopefullyalso gain personality and personalities in the near future. My firstimpression is an informative site explaining the principles of HumanisticJudaism, but seriously lacking any direct human input. We must be braveand stand for what we believe in with people, faces and UK links.Criticism will inevitably flow from some quarters, but there are many whowill publicly support this initiative.Rabbi’s / Madricha’s questions, community news and events and on-linelearning for adults and kids are just a few of the items that would makethis site greater, as many like myself are stranded outside of Humanisticcommunities and yearn for a UK based on-line community / congregation withlinks to communal / national events.Keep up the good work. I will be joining the site from my home email. May your efforts continue to go from strengthto strength.ShalomDavePS. Problems sending email directly to your email address.

  4. rmannes says:

    Your story has touched my heart and I am feeling God’s presence even as write this. Thank you for sharing a side of Christianity that those of us who have been brought up in it rarely get to see. You have experienced a transformation similar to those that we read about in the New Testament. What a blessing and a powerful testimony. Keep sharing it!


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  12. Rafael DT says:

    I am a brazillian christian who really liked to read your story.
    I don’t know if you had already some opportunity to visit our country or some place in latin Amercia. Feel invited, anyway!
    It is really interesting how different are the way of thoughts regarding religion/culture/spirituality in Europe, North America and South America.
    I think you are a very gifted woman because you’ve been living among many cultures and beliefs. It is extremely enriching.
    However, it is true that Jesus is the only way of peace and something else so unexplainable for human beings to live the life. You found it. But it is also true that a big part of nowadays christianity is a little (or very) far from Jesus at all.
    Reading the Bible without previous bias is a wonderful journey to freedom and to understanding things as they really are.
    Your story is very interesting as it shows how you could find Jesus as per His real way.
    I’d like to tell you that, as you had the good opportunity to grow up as Reform Jewish, it gave you some notions we find very hardly in a completely christian culture. I use to say that we have to learn with Christ leassons, live as He told us to do, always considering the treasures God gave to humanity through Israel, God’s people (as we can see in all Old Testament). If you will be able to raise your children as christians who can recognize all precious old treasures that are hidden in the history about Israel and all jewish people, it will make them men and woman that are able to access so much more places in God that we do at all.
    In Brazil, here are all kind of people as you can imagine. But here are some christians that are very next to jewish causes and thoughts (not politically or culturally, but spiritually). We can see that Jesus was a jew who didn’t condemned Judaism (as people frequently use to see), but He came and teached how a jew should really live. In fact, not only jews, but any human on earth. As He said in His own words: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. It is so beautiful and wonderful!!!!
    Ok, sorry for writing too much. But I’d like to give you a last comment: be sure you are a God’s daughter, and be sure He is your saviour in this life, but do never forget that He prepared a place for you in eternity, so He is your saviour forever, even in the next stage, after this human life.
    Just let your children know that religion, culture and tradition do not save anyone, but are very enriching and important things (Jesus only saves, and not the name of your church or something like that).
    I pray that God bless you, your husband and your children!

    • seeingfaith says:

      Dear Rafael,

      Thanks for visiting my blog and for your comments. I have never been to Brazil but have always wanted to go – I’m completely fascinated by it (particularly the dancing)! I totally agree with you that Jesus was a Jew who came to show us how we all should live. That’s why I don’t feel like I’ve in any way turned my back on Judaism, because the way I live now is very much consistent with the promise of Judaism. I am not 100% sure I agree with you when you say that ‘Jesus is the only way of peace’. I think that the WAY Jesus lives is the way of peace, but that other religions also point to that way as well. I personally happened to find that way – and particularly the spiritual dimension of it – through studying Jesus, which is why I got baptized. But I have met many other people of other faiths (particularly some amazing Muslims I have encountered over the past few years) who have found that way through their own faith traditions that view Jesus differently than Christians. Anyway, thank you so much for writing, and I would love to hear more about what religious life is like in Brazil – it’s such a culturally diverse country that I’m sure it’s fascinating!

  13. Hello, I don’t know how intentional this is, but I cannot find your name anywhere and i would really appreciate being able to quote you in my studies, which is rather difficult without your name. Please could you let me know, thank you. Sherrin Dunlevie.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Sherrin, I am so terribly sorry I didn’t reply to you before. I will post soon about this but basically I’ve started working again and haven’t had much time to monitor my blog. I’m guessing I’m too late, but if not, but my first name is Louise. Hope that helps and good luck with your studies. Thanks.

      • Juanjo says:

        Hi;On January the 7th 2011 I will be presenting my Viva’ for my PhD. The University is St David Lampter (Wales).My theiss is about Humanistic Judaism. The title of it is: Humanistic Judaism History, Doctrines, Ethics and Religious Rituals’. I must say it is a very good piece of work. It is very comprehensive and I am sure it would benefit anyone interested in Humanistic Judaism. So, from now on I will be checking on your website for news about Humanistic Judaism.

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