If not for his wife, Larry Cohen probably wouldn’t participate in Jewish life much, if at all. But Cindi Cohen, who isn’t Jewish, was adamant about prioritizing Judaism in their lives from the get-go. She incorporated Jewish elements in their wedding, raised a Jewish child and became an active member in Temple Solel. After pushing her husband to be more active, he’s now on the synagogue’s board.
Cindi Cohen might not identify as Jewish, but she’s the driving force behind her Jewish home.
Yet, stories like hers aren’t necessarily part of last month’s “Jewish Americans in 2020” survey by the Pew Research Center. While Pew did ask “people of Jewish affinity” about matters of belonging, continuity and engagement with the Jewish community, if respondents didn’t claim to be exclusively Jewish by religion, weren’t raised as Jewish or didn’t have a Jewish parent, they were not included in the report on the survey’s findings.
According to Becka A. Alper, Pew senior researcher, the survey “applied a narrower definition of Jewishness” for its analysis. “We don’t define people as Jewish if they don’t say they are Jewish,” she said, via email.
And despite leading Jewish lives and raising Jewish children, some in interfaith marriages hesitate from identifying as Jewish, instead saying the issue is more complicated and personal.
It’s unfortunate that these people, who are often “part of the lifeblood of Jewish institutions,” but don’t identify as Jewish, aren’t showing up in the data, said Jodi Bromberg, CEO of 18Doors, an organization whose stated mission is to empower interfaith couples in their exploration of Jewish life.
Bromberg is more interested in how “folks find connection and meaning in Jewish life,” rather than whether they identify as Jewish. Researchers should be asking: “Why do you feel connected to Jewish life and community and how does that play out?”
A binary understanding of Jewish identity — one is Jewish or one is not — is too limited when it comes to exploring something as fluid as identity, said Keren McGinity, professor at Brandeis University and author of two books on the topic of interfaith marriage.
Surveys can only tell “a teeny part of the story,” she said. “Jewish life and identity are dynamic and they change and it stands to reason that the questions we ask also need to change.” She, too, is more interested in how people “identify Jewishly.”
It’s something Cindi Cohen has spent some time considering. Though she was never asked the question in a formal survey, she knows how she would have answered if asked which religion she practices. And her answer would be unequivocal: Judaism.
If asked directly if she is a Jew, however, her answer would be no. She wouldn’t identify as Jewish “out of respect” for and so as not to offend Solel’s older congregants.
Yet, she “feels Jewish,” and most people assume she is. When fellow congregants or parents of her children discover that she’s not Jewish, they’re shocked, she said. She sometimes wonders if those people feel differently towards her once they know.
But her first son, who was 5 years old when she married Larry, isn’t as reticent when it comes to his identity. Even though he never formally converted, Judaism is the only religion he has ever known, and if asked, he would say he is a Jew, Cohen said.
Though Cohen flirts with the idea of one day converting, since she’s already “super involved,” she’s not sure she should have to.
Temple Chai member Elizabeth Keith understands Cohen’s hesitance on that score.
She is also married to someone who didn’t convert and doesn’t identify as Jewish, but claims Temple Chai Rabbi Mari Chernow as his “rabbi and spiritual leader;” she’s the one he turns to in a crisis.
“It doesn’t preclude you from being part of the Jewish community if you don’t convert,” Keith said.
That idea also resonates with Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Jeremy Schneider. He likes to look at “the bigger picture” when it comes to interfaith marriage.
“I don’t believe in labeling anybody as ‘you’re a Jew; you’re not a Jew.’ Everyone who chooses to cast their lot with Kol Ami is choosing to be part of a Jewish home,” he said.
Even so, Brian Hummell, who attends TKA, feels some distinction is necessary.
He is from Salina, Kansas, grew up Catholic and his early exposure to Judaism was limited. When he married a Jewish woman, his mother had to ask what it means to be Jewish.
“You can’t fight love,” Hummell said. But there was never a question in his mind that he would convert. He still believes in Catholicism’s story. “I can’t turn that off,” he said, though he acknowledged it would be easier for his family if he did convert.
He feels completely embraced by TKA, and he was happy to raise his children as Jews, saying they are best served there, a place he’s never felt ostracized as a non-Jew.
He feels no barrier to belonging nor to participating in services. There’s a moment every year during High Holidays when Schneider brings interfaith families to the bimah for a special blessing. Hummell said he tears up every year at that moment and said he “gets misty” just talking about it.
But he still lets people know he’s not Jewish, although he celebrates Jewish holidays and his children are Jews. It’s a line he doesn’t want to cross, he said.
Chris Rogers, another TKA member, grew up in the Church of Latter Day Saints. But when he married Jen, a Jewish woman, he was prepared, even happy, to help raise their children as Jews.
“My faith prioritized family and some form of spirituality above all,” he said. “It was important to give kids community and religious education, but denomination wasn’t important.”
Still, he said he’s only “Jewish by marriage.” Identifying as a Jew would be a bridge too far, in part, because his own religious heritage is one that was persecuted. “I don’t think it would honor my ancestors to turn my back on them,” he said.
But he doesn’t feel the need to fall into an either/or way of thinking about his identity.
“Life is stressful enough without dealing with those kinds of false lines,” he said.
Cohen said the topic of Jewish identity comes up sometimes in conversation with other interfaith couples, and they all feel pretty much the same. For better or worse, “it’s up to official Jews to say if people like us are Jewish,” she said. JN